I remember when a group of us would look over the graveyard near our homes in Kariokor, fighting back tears as we mourned yet another friend who had been shot dead in the seemingly endless gun battles between police and gangs in Eastlands. After too many lives lost in Nairobi, with two neighbourhood friends we resolved to work out ways to fight the gang threat.
Today, the menace is different. When I met Jamal Ali two years ago in a Pumwani cafe, he was barely out of his teens. He was easily susceptible to the heady cocktail of camaraderie, status and purpose being offered by some extremists. Hit by a barrage of their false promises and propaganda – and without alternative leaders to turn to – he eventually gave in to their persuasion. When the law caught up with him he was locked up for two years. After being released he was spurned by many and confused about where to go next. I talked with him at that crucial time, when he was on the verge of being drawn back by the recruiters, and saw an opportunity to turn his life around.
There are many teenagers and young men who are from humble backgrounds like him. Every story is different. Some grew up with absent fathers, others missed out on schooling and got pulled into small crime, and others failed to create the life expected of them. Yet, there are solutions and ways to engage the youth, such as peer-to-peer mentorship and role modeling. Creating and fostering conversation, especially positive interaction with law enforcement and community and religious leaders, can help to create purpose and aspirations.
First and foremost, the country needs more trusted guides to help vulnerable young people grow up in high-risk neighbourhoods, especially in the areas where youth easily end up in gangs and extremist groups. Religion, especially Islam, can offer hope with attractive ideas of justice, equality and purpose. But the number of converts is increasing everyday and radicals have taken advantage of this. Extremists are organised to easily bewitch the vulnerable new converts with false and extremist beliefs, so we need our own army of mentors to keep them at bay.
It seems many people in Kenya are searching for the answer of how to counter the extremist menace. Sports events like the annual Kothbiro Football Tournament which attracts thousands of spectators and hundreds of players from all of Kenya’s communities. These activities are about more than football. The field in Ziwani Estate where many of the matches are played may be small and dusty – and muddy in the rains – but it is where stories of heroism and comradeship are made. Friendships are created, and goals scored. Joined in a common purpose, it brings together people who otherwise are divided.
There are some who think the youth, particularly those from underprivileged areas, are inevitably prone to violence and do not deserve to have their voice heard. Yet, when police and local government administrators speak to the community and everyone gets to hear and ask questions, the youth listen and it can bring progress. When church leaders and Imams speak to the youth, and they speak about real issues that can bring change, however small, that makes a real difference.
Last April, Kenya was shocked to realize that someone with all the promise and privilege of a young man like Abdirahim Mohammed Abdullahi could plot the Garissa University attack. Yet, for every lucky Abdirahim there are ten guys pulled in from marginalized and forgotten communities to serve as cannon fodder for the extremists’ war of hate. The lost generations of youth whose lives are taken away are also the victims of violence. All over the world the common fate for a young guy who has been radicalized is that they die or end-up in prison for the rest of their days.
In Kenya, the growing population of young men and women that I speak to daily are anxious about their life and feel left behind by the onward march of national growth and changes in society. When I spoke recently to the UN about violence and extremism I emphasized how there are so many opportunities to convert the immense energy of the youth, and their desire to support themselves and their families, into something positive.
Today, those growing into adults in Kenya need to have more opportunities to come together through sports and other activities, and speak with leaders. The youth need more opportunities to work out their differences and unite, to make stories together, to grow a national vision of hope for a common future. This way we can keep the youth out of the graves, and they can help make a safer Kenya.