By Jessica Ciccarelli
Nairobi’s streets are wild—an organized, yet chaotic masterpiece unique to this “City in the Sun.” That’s what I realized the day I stepped foot in Nairobi. The smells, sounds and sights all have their own distinct Nairobi twist. There’s nothing quite like navigating this assault to the senses. Imagine, if you can, the smell of barbecued beef (Nyama Choma), garbage, sweat, and nature at the exact moment you are hearing and seeing cars, buses (matatus), motorbikes (bodabodas), camels, goats, push carts and any combination of security officers from Nairobi’s dozen different security agencies holding what look, at least to me, a lot like AK47s. Simply, strangely, I miss this Nairobi chaos.
Who am I? I am a graduate student at the Kroc School of Peace Studies that was given the opportunity to traverse these wild streets, to befriend the line where Nairobi’s rich greenness becomes as sparse as the income, and to call it a program requirement for my school. I interned this summer with organizations that live and work in communities which many people—local and international alike—fear entering, and it was in those communities that I fell in love with that beautiful city and its residents. There I became irreversibly interested in the work of the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice (IPJ). This internship with the IPJ gave me a unique and new love that showed me the beauty that can be found in struggle if you open your mind and heart to it.
I had the honor this summer of working with three incredible organizations: Chemchemi Ya Ukweli (Kiswahili for Wellspring of Truth), Catholic Relief Services and Caritas. With Chemchemi Ya Ukweli, I interviewed actors at every level of Nairobi society to better understand the relationship between youth and police. This led me to communities all over Nairobi – from the lavish, upmarket areas to the more impoverished, informal communities. Riding this line between upmarket and informal gave me a depth of understanding around identity I could have gotten nowhere else. While working with Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, whose work is largely based in the informal and impoverished communities, I wandered around the settlements in Kariobangi and Mathare. There, I met countless youth who permanently changed the way that I think about what are considered informal communities and informal employment.
I learned a great deal from this internship with the IPJ field program in Kenya and there are many things I will carry with me as I transition this fall from my role as a student of peace to someone who helps build it. Knowledge like the value of local voices that goes beyond meeting basic demands for local buy-in and insists on real, local, grassroots initiation.
Following this introductory post about my work in Kenya, I will be writing a series of pieces dedicated to my experience with the IPJ in Nairobi. In these, I will have the opportunity to share some of the big lessons I’ve learned. The posts will explore four different themes: 1) How the teachings and values of the Kroc School of Peace Studies aided and influenced my practice this summer; 2) How external actors engage with local communities—how to avoid “slum tourism” or “the savior complex”; 3) Youth and police identity in Nairobi; and finally 4) Tribal identity in Kenya. In these posts, I will not only share some of the lessons I learned this summer, but I will also try to show how the methods and values of the Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice are exceptional and have shaped both my field experience and the lives of the individuals I met.
The views expressed by Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice Interns are those of the author and are not necessarily those of the IPJ or of the University of San Diego.