From the Inside In: Growing up in Kibera
I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa. As a teenager, I was often face-to-face with the challenges of coming of age in a place full of challenges. There was gang violence, drug abuse and crime around me. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life or how much of a chance my life even had, but I was sure about one thing: I wanted to dance. At sixteen, I told my father I wanted to pursue dance in some way. He threw me out of the house.
“What will dance bring you?!” he yelled, tossing my belongings out the door. I moved in with a friend. Then the life I was trying to escape began to catch up to me as the only way to survive. With limited options to pay for food and shelter, I chose the wrong path. You can almost not call it a choice when life feels like a burden, and your environment's stress weighs down on you.
After a robbery went wrong, where two of my friends ended up dead, I was determined to turn my life around. With no one to tell me no, I danced. I danced wherever I could and found a way to turn one opportunity into many opportunities, into a career, into an example for other teenagers in my community, and into a way to give back to those young people who find themselves in the same position I experienced at their age.
There are many from the outside who come to my community with good intentions to bring resources or opportunities. They also come with the same narrow view of opportunity that my father had. My name is Francis Odhiambo, founder of ChezaCheza and the view I have of my community is one where imagination and creativity feed opportunity, not discourage it.
My story is not unique. Kevin, one of our teachers from Mathare, explains why he joined ChezaCheza:
“My name is Kelvin Otieno Awuor. I grew up in Mathare and growing up here has not been easy. Gangs, drug abuse, gender-based violence, insecurity and political instability are just a few of our daily challenges. I joined CheaCheza in 2021 after undergoing their training as a dance coach. I have always loved dancing, and this training gave me a platform to become a coach with the tools and a structural way to give my classes. I am proud to say that through ChezaCheza, I am now a change-maker and have a positive impact on society.”
Addressing stress as a means to closing the mental health gap
I’m Cherrelle Druppers, CEO of ChezaCHeza and my view of this community as someone who came from the outside is that it can surprise and inspire you when you nurture it properly. And properly has no copy-and-paste template when it comes to addressing mental health. When talking to Francis and his friends, the word that came back in every single story was ‘stress’.
Growing up in Kibera you just had to accept that your challenges were just something you had to deal with, even as it takes a mental toll on you. There is a lack of services to support children’s mental health and well-being that is culturally appropriate, fun and accessible.
At ChezaCheza, we provide a place where children can leave their troubles behind and use dance as a form of therapy to process their emotions and release stress. In the communities within our community where we work, children are confronted with stress all day, every day. We call it the “looking over your shoulder” effect.
Will my lunch get stolen? Will I be assaulted today? Will my dad come home drunk and hit my mother, again? Am I safe? These are real questions facing our students. With these questions in mind, ChezaCheza developed a curriculum rooted in Dance Movement Therapy, Social-Emotional Learning and mindfulness meditation to help children process and communicate feelings in an emotionally supportive environment where they can connect with peers and caring mentors in a clear example of collective care.
ChezaCheza builds these safe spaces through a community-led approach where we provide dancers with training and financial resources to implement ChezaCheza sessions throughout the community. We work exclusively with young community-based coaches, acting as role models with a similar background to the children. They are primarily selected based on their passion for driving social change and making a difference in their community. ChezaCheza trains them in Dance Movement Therapy, leadership, trauma-based responses and counselling that encourages their dreams while respecting their reality.
Creating the next generation of local change-makers
The wonderful thing about showing children that they have options beyond what they see and are told within their community is that it translates into impactful behavioural change. We have seen clear cases where, through our sessions, students have been able to break the cycle of abuse. One student explained to us that before coming to ChezaCheza, he sometimes felt out of control when his sister did not behave, and he believed punishment was the only way to control her.
ChezaCheza taught him relaxation techniques and alternative ways to express his anger. We also worked to explain to him—along with all others in his class—what the negative short-term and long-term negative impact could have on the life of a girl. We work to break down the social norms that have normalised abuse and violence in a way that everyone can relate to, especially for those who have faced abuse from parents or local gang members. When this student openly told us how he no longer hit his sister out of anger, but also understood she should not be controlled, but listened to, we realised the potential for children to become change-makers in their community.
From the Inside Out: Our work is not confined to one year of funding
I have seen a fair share of organisations come to Kibera and offer ‘solutions’ without any involvement from the community. Programs are either short-term, change focus areas or are not inclusive and participatory in their planning or implementation. As ‘the largest slum in east Africa’, Kibera remains a popular funding destination for INGOs, where funding regularly surpasses local organisations that serve the same community. I have not been asked for my opinion from INGOs or many donors and I often wonder why program support is just for one year and then ends.
Marginalised communities are vulnerable and sometimes exist in volatile circumstances. Challenges do not go away quickly, which I’m sure is not unique to Kibera. Investment in people needs to be long-term in order to create a realistic sustainable outcome. Especially when working with children, we see a tendency to enrol children in a one-year program. But what happens after? If there is still no stable support system and their environment has not changed, how can we really be sure we prepare them for a brighter future?
Annual grant cycles cannot solve systemic problems. Children and youth need stability and safety, which require multi-year funding and a long-term commitment. As someone from Kibera, I am dedicated to changing this community, and I honestly cannot think of people more dedicated to a powerful impact than those who have created, tested, and seen sustainable solutions as members of the community. For this reason, ChezaCheza does not offer an annual program that helps children and then works with another cohort. We feel that children need support throughout their formative years because this is where many challenges arise, and guidance is needed.
What we need is trust
Funding is often focused on projects or new initiatives, and this funding is often restricted. We understand this is something that many nonprofits of all sizes struggle with, but for us, the fondness for one-year programmatic support is especially troubling. We need more flexibility, yes with how we can implement funds, but also in timing to focus on the work. If donors factor the months-long renewal process into the life of a one-year grant, that means they must be aware that we will be judged predominantly on a months-long relationship aimed at long term sustainable impact.
If donors want transparent results from nonprofits, we need transparent trust. The Covid-19 pandemic showed the community's tremendous power and resiliency in how they responded quickly to unexpected needs. Let’s keep the momentum going and shift the mindset in grant-making to be simpler, more trust-based and inclusive. How? Here are some ideas:
Participate: Creating a participatory grant-making cycle can ensure that funding is shaped for where it’s needed. Community- Based organisations (CBOs) would greatly benefit from unrestricted support that shows that funders trust the community to build effective systems to serve their community long-term. But unrestricted support should include trust. More trust in community-led approaches can rebalance power, activate ownership and support community building.
Collaborate: Through roundtables or forums, communities can be involved in the funding process after the first grant is made. An inclusive and community-led grantmaking practice can shift power and decision-making toward the communities they intend to serve. We can solve problems and develop creative solutions if we recognise the people closest to work as essential decision-makers with expertise. This creates a purer form of shared ownership.
Listen: Funders can start by asking for feedback on the grant process. The feedback can change funding priorities if we funders are open to learning and ask, “What can we change?”. Funders can also engage with the organisations they fund and create a more participatory process to establish an open discussion so that their view of our community is a realistic one that recognises and rewards opportunity.