Come Here, I Tell You

IMG_5684Kuja nikuambie – come here, I tell you. I’m sure it’s not intended this way, but I find great humility in this simple phrase. Probably because I so often find that listening is essential to learning about a place or a people, and understanding who people are is so important to creating any sort of sustainable change. Thus, in this simple phrase, I am reminded to be open, to come, and to listen. It’s unsurprising then that kuja nikuambie is the first Swahili phrase, outside my list of common greetings, which I remember perfectly (although I had to get some help spelling it!)

If the first lesson is to listen, learn, and understand, then the second is that, as they so often do in Nairobi, plans change – last minute, out of nowhere, things happen just a little differently – and the best thing you can do is go with it.

Last Wednesday I sat down with a friend from Chemchemi Ya Ukweli and four youth doing art-based peace work in Nairobi’s informal settlements. Though the location was different (we had originally meant to meet in the youths’ community and now were meeting in a more upmarket part of Nairobi), the intention and passion were the same. These four youth, through three different organizations, use art like dancing, singing, and puppetry, to address community issues. They change the dances, songs, and subjects based on the needs and identity of the community. They reach people by speaking to the unique traditions and cultures of each group.

This is why grassroots, bottom-up peacebuilding is so important. I’m not saying you can’t reach people or transform structures of violence with other peacebuilding approaches, but imagine how many more you can reach and transform if you connect to who people are. Peacebuilding theory has some pretty commonsense principles that, I think, demand consideration for identity. First, let me tell you what these principles are, then I’ll show you how identity applies:

  1. Peacebuilding is a multi-dimensional enterprise
  2. Ownership
  3. Capacity Building
  4. Accountability: Do No Harm

Though this is by no means an exhaustive list, these are the four principles of peacebuilding most relevant to the discussion today.

First, peacebuilding is a multi-dimensional enterprise. It has many voices, actors, and agendas. None can be disregarded for peacebuilding to work. They all must be understood, heard, and considered seriously. Fully understanding a person’s identity is essential to knowing him or her as an actor and understanding his or her agenda.

Second, all peacebuilding programs and interventions must have local ownership. Though this can be a very contested subject, the fundamental truth is whether you are convincing a local audience to buy into your solution or creating a solution together, you’ll be remarkably more effective if you know your audience.

Third is capacity building, which, for me, is essentially the promise that you will eventually be irrelevant. Imperative to peacebuilding is the idea that we have a duty from the very beginning to build local capacities so they, in time, can run the projects and their country’s institutions themselves. To truly build local capacity, we must first have a full, objective understanding of what the local capacity is. It only makes sense that in working to understand this, we must also have a better understanding of the community’s identity (who they are, their culture, traditions, strengths, weaknesses, history).

Finally, identity is essential to perhaps one of the most important aspects of peacebuilding – accountability – and with accountability comes the fundamental principle of “Do No Harm.” We as peacebuilders, as external actors, must be responsible for our actions. We must ensure we are doing no harm in our journey to creating peace. Many things should be considered to accomplish this, and we would be remiss to forget this truth:

Without truly understanding who someone is and why and how they became who they are we are doomed to continuously harm the people we are so dedicated to helping.

This, indeed, is the worst case scenario. Still, without proper consideration for identity we are at best doomed to waste often large amounts of funding on ineffective interventions. This we must hold ourselves accountable for. What I love about working at the community level is that they already intrinsically know this. The youth I work with knew that if they were ever to work in communities with different tribal identities they absolutely had to cater their art to the traditions of that tribe. Otherwise, it would have been completely ineffective and a huge waste of their own savings.

The People Behind the Idea

I want to create something. I’ve wanted to since I first went to Liberia, and found so many people hungry to tell their stories, but lacking the resources and the platform to do it. What started off as a simple idea nearly three years ago has evolved into something of a dream and a craving. One which didn’t truly take form until I met the exceptional youth living in Nairobi’s poorest, most marginalized, often informal communities. They showed me their pains, struggles, dreams, and talents. They showed me that art, as it has in my own life, can create healing, change, and peace – individually, communally, and, if we dream big enough, even systemically. So, what started as an idea has very much become a project. We want to create something together. We all started this journey on our own paths. We’ve had very different struggles and use different artistic outlets. We are different, but I believe we can do something incredible together.

These youth have talent and a drive to create change in their communities, and what they need is a bit of support, a solid platform, and someone who believes in them.

I don’t know how I’m going to do it, but I want to give them that. I know the power of having someone believe in you. I know how it changes you, and for all the people who gave that gift to me, I want to share it with the youth I’ve met in Nairobi’s poorest communities..

The Change Begins With You

This past Thursday I walked into the Ngei 1 meeting space in Huruma, Nairobi. It’s a rentable space created from the work and toils of youth who run garbage pickups, community bathrooms, showers, trainings, and counseling. I walked in and saw a room full of youth ages 18 to 26 waiting to meet with and talk to me. I watched girls from the Fahari Africa Youth Theater Group do a skit on HIV/Aids. Though I don’t speak Swahili very well yet, they were so good that I was able to pick up quite a bit before one of the youth translated for me.

They are actors.
They are actresses.
They are poets.
They are spoken word artists.
They are DJs.
They are peacebuilders.

I was moved by their talent, openness, and their hope. So moved, that I concluded my time with them by sharing a poem of mine called “Bones, Brokens, and Reasons,” (which you can find in the exerpt below). I did this so they would know I come in with nothing but empathy. That I know I haven’t been through what they’ve been through, but I understand and I’m there to help in the areas they need help and learn from them in all the ways they are rich in knowledge and experience.

I know what it’s like to feel like you’re nothing
It wasn’t so much done with intent
But a byproduct of a sacrosanct promise broken before them
One that said love shall never equal harm.
My parents molded me with two broken hands strengthened by the layer of thick that develops when the people you love kick you too many times
They tried to teach me love is more than a word 
it’s a thing you do

At the end of this poem, one of the youth leaders looked at me and said, “This is our story. I don’t think there is a person in this room who hasn’t been through exactly what you just shared with us.” When asked whether they disagreed, not one hand in the room went up.

It was at this moment of humility and heartbreak that I knew – these are the youth I’m meant to work with. This community I am meant to fall in love with. I want to sit down with the poets and have a conversation about poetry and spoken word for social change. I want to be taught to act by their incredible actors and actresses. I want to raise money for the drummers so they can bring real drums to their dance and music performances. This is what I’m meant to do. This is why I wake up every morning with hope and a drive. The young people in this amazing city move me every day.

IMG_2969Next week, I’ll be going back to Huruma via matatu (found to the left), so I’ll be sharing with you a bit about Nairobi culture and its very crazy mode of transportation. If you like these stories and want more like them, you can join my email list at, look me up on twitter @jciccarelli09, or join the Facebook page therecoverypoet.

Until Next Week! I hope you have a great one!

Yours truly,
Jessica Ciccarelli, the recovery poet



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