Leading in Kibera
Young leader Salim Mohamed grew up in poverty in Kenya. But despite his disadvantageous background, he went on to encourage community leadership and much-needed dialogue between tribes. Here he talks to Vasilisa Takoeva about the events that led him to this place, and about his vision of leadership.
What are the key moments along your journey that influenced you?
I grew up in a children’s home in Kenya. It wasn’t easy – everybody wants to advance in their life and we weren’t sure what we were going to eat the next day or if we were going to go to school.
Your entire life depends on that community, and I think from the outset it really starting building my character – how to talk to people and how to see the good in them as well the bad.
When I was about 12 years old, I formed a football team. This football team came from the children’s home. Then I was elected to be the executive – at that time I was only 14 or 15, and I was responsible for a budget of more than 200,000 dollars.
Leadership at an early age came with responsibility – I was growing up, I was young, I was trying to identify myself. But the community had identified me to be a leader.
Most of the time leaders are the ones who are vocal or who can write, or who are able to present themselves. But my life has involved living and working in informal settlements, and the lady who raised me was illiterate, so how do you identify those community heroes who are leaders?
How did the community identify you?
I was building up the team with 16 young boys, and most of them were actually older than me. So it sort of built my character, which the community saw in me, and all my peers elected me to be in charge of the organisation.
But it also brought a lot of confusion for me because I was young and there were a lot of other things to be thinking about. I think that’s why it’s really important at that very early age to identify mentors. I think that’s one of the things that is really lacking in leadership – we identify leaders but we lack mentors who are like us and who can assist us to be like those leaders. I was very lucky that I got a mentor at a very early age: someone who supported me to develop and nurture my leadership. She was funding the organisation and she realised the potential in me and she sent me on some training so I could develop my leadership skills.
And then you moved to another community to develop your own organisation – why and how did you do that?
I was working for Mathari Youth Sports Association, one of the largest youth organisations in Africa. I was in charge of information and education. I met a friend from the US and we talked about starting a similar organisation that looked at how we can get young people to be involved in peace-building through sports.
But how do we actually ensure that there is room for new leadership to emerge? If you look at the national leadership we always end up fighting for that space – the space is never created very easily for us to sprout out. I moved out of my organisation because I realised there was a need to create that space for new leaders to come; and then I moved to Kibera to start all over again, and to be engaged in a new community.
You say that you felt the need to develop youth in this community. How did you do that?
We started using sports, especially football. One of the core problems we were trying to address was violence. Our community was and still is very ethnically divided. So we developed teams of boys and girls of different ethnic groups, so they were actually playing together. They’re having a dialogue, because in sports you have to talk to each other.
So we started using sports in addressing conflict. And in 2007, when my country erupted into violence, we saw some of the relationships that we had built for nearly five years coming into effect, because some of these young men and women who’d been taking part in our programme were the ones who were involved in peace-building in the community and interacting with the community. If you asked “Where was Salim?” I was not even there, because these relationships are transplanted to their homes. So they become leaders within their own communities. You develop the capacity of the community to ensure that they don’t just look to you – you provide the skills for that to continue.
What does leadership mean for you?
For me leader doesn’t mean that you are the person doing everything. It should mean you can be listening and you can be in the background looking at people doing things. I find there is no clear-cut way of defining leadership; maybe you can be a servant – that means you are a leader as well. Leadership has several forms.
Can you give an example of a good leader?
The lady who started the children’s home I grew up in didn’t know how to read or write but she was in charge of 116 children, and she was able to feed us, she was able to take us to school, and she was able to do everything for us. You expect that kind of work to be done by somebody who is educated, but she wasn’t. To me she is a leader. A leader can be someone who is not educated but cares and wants to change things. A leader is a change-maker.
But change can be from bad to good or from good to bad. Not everybody is a good leader – you can have terrible change-makers.
Can you give an example of a bad leader?
I think it is to do with a lack of ethics. And I find that to be very common in the current leadership that we see. How we come out of school means we see life in one perspective, but often that does not benefit others. It’s always ‘I’ but not ‘we’ – it’s never about the betterment of the community.
If we speak about values, what should they be?
I think it’s the ability to serve and to be served. It’s also to do with not being at the forefront all the time.
Often we define leaders who are the people who’ve gone through struggles in life – those are the leaders we want to identify with. But there are people who didn’t go through struggles – like, for example, the lady who raised me.
It is worth thinking about how you define leaders at community, national and international level, and how we relate to these leaders. You find it at international level: if you look at a leader, you talk about democratic values that person has. These values transcend throughout but there is also this person who is able to live in harmony with the community, with everybody.
Is there a cultural influence on your understanding of leadership?
My country has more than 40 tribes – a lot of cultures and traditions. As a leader, if you relate to just one culture, it means you only identify with that particular culture. Most of the time I’ve never really identified myself even to my own culture, because it’s different in each different community. For example, in my own culture I would relate to an older person, and in another culture it might differ.
When I moved to Kibera, I was coming into a community that was very volatile and I had to learn how to relate to different people from different tribes. So how do you connect the dots within all these cultures? How are you expected to behave? For me leadership is more about relationships, and give and take. You’re giving yourself out to the community, and then you’re taking something.
So it’s not easy to say I’ve been influenced by culture in terms of my leadership, but it’s something that has to be relearned. You can’t say you have complete knowledge of culture: it’s like a cycle that you have to continue to learn.
Would you say that’s a challenge specifically for someone who is a leader in Kenya?
Not only in Kenya, but everywhere in the world. That’s one of the problems with the current leadership: if you identify with a particular form of leadership, you stop learning. Maybe you identify with this particular culture and that’s how you relate to people, so you confine your thinking to that ideal.
I think one of the greatest problems in many African countries is violence. It’s mostly to do with leadership and culture, and how people relate. When one tribe feels excluded because you represent your own tribe, it’s not because you’re excluding them, but because you don’t know how to relate to them.
Would you say peer religion influences the understanding of leadership?
I don’t think in my community religion has influenced my culture or my leadership, because I was born a Catholic and I’m a Muslim. My leadership has been non-political and non-religious. I don’t identify with any political party and I don’t identify with any religion. That’s personal, and I carry that with me; so how can we engage in certain matters and disengage from others that are personal?
And all your values came from your community?
Most of my values were instilled when I was at the children’s home: values such as that we were all equal. So if one day we were not eating, we were all not eating – it’s not that just one was eating: all 116 were not eating. So you’re all equal, and you all want to work to better your lives. Sometimes these values are instilled in the process of suffering – because at the end of the day I don’t want anyone else to suffer the way I did. So you start learning to serve and to improve your life, and to improve other people’s lives. When I started my organisation Caroline for Kibera, for a whole year I didn’t have a salary, but it was about service. So it becomes about how you can be like a servant to the community.
Who are your role models?
To be honest I’ve always had a problem with that question. I have identified with different people at different periods in my life. But my role model is the founder of the children’s home, in terms of the service that she gave, and how she took care of me. I don’t identify with national leaders because in many instances for me to identify with a particular person I also need to be aware of who that person is and what that person contributed. I think there is a need to develop new leaders people can identify with.
Do you mean internationally, or within your community?
Both. If you look at the educational system in my country in terms of how leadership is being taught, we identify with historical leaders. We need to ask who some of the community heroes are who need to be recognised and celebrated. I believe that even here in Manchester some community heroes are never recognised as leaders. How do you identify them? What mechanisms or tools do we need?
What challenges do you think this world faces now?
I think most of our leaders now are political leaders. We’ve had so much conflict in the last 10 years, and that has to do with many of our leaders and the decisions they take.
If you look at Africa, if you look at Europe and if you look at Asia, if it’s not global warming it’s conflict, or it’s famine. And all that is to do with our leaders, because we’ve disconnected from dialogue. Dialogue happens, but only at the top. It doesn’t go to the community.
And there’s that corruption of leadership, and the people we identify as our leaders are not the right people. If you look at my country, there is an issue to do with ethnicity even within our leadership, and these people serve just basically their own tribe. So how do we solve that?
We all tend to sit at high tables that we hide behind. I think we are afraid to be vulnerable and to expose our weaknesses, but I think in that process a lot of learning and healing goes on.
One of the things that have assisted me a lot is saying that I don’t know but I’m willing to learn. And that is not really there with a lot of our leaders.
How do you perceive Western theory of leadership?
I just took a class on leadership in school and it was really interesting. It lacked the cultural orientation in how we identify leaders in Western theory. There is a lot of theory but it’s not practical, and when it comes to practice a person who’s been identified through theory fails to meet the practicalities, so there is that disconnect.
Academics can do much, but there is also the school of life. All these theories don’t work in practice. Leaders in Africa and in Europe both do this. Most of them come from the same school of thought.
From the Western school of thought?
Yes, from the Western school of thought. Most of our African leaders are educated either in Europe or in America. So there’s no cultural context within their leadership. They have disassociated themselves from their environment. And they create barriers, and before you can reach them you have to jump through so many hoops. But before they were leaders you could see them, so why has it become that when you are leader you are insecure? Do we create that insecurity, or do the leaders?
Can the West learn anything from Kenyan community leaders?
Yes. I think they can learn how to be ethical. They can learn how it’s not easy surviving on a dollar – it’s difficult, because you have to learn how to account for that one dollar within your family. I think they can learn that it’s not easy living in a community that is extremely poor, but that there are leaders who are able to work with such communities. Communities where, at any moment, anything can happen. And I think leaders from my side can also learn from the business side of leadership of the West.
How to manage. So there is cross-pollination – we can learn from each other. I think if we are able to share our values we can impact greatly on each other’s leadership abilities. What we share will enable us to relate better.
So again it’s about dialogue?
It’s all about dialogue; it’s all about how we form relationships. Kibera is the largest informal settlement in Africa. It’s estimated to have nearly a million people who live in an area of 550 hectares. There are 530 civil societies working on those 550 hectares, which means they should eradicate poverty. But whatever they’re doing is insignificant: poverty is still rife.
So it means that even within my community there is still a lot to learn about leadership. But, on the other hand, where do these civil societies get their money? They get it from the West. So it’s about how the West can ensure dialogue and accountability in terms of leadership.
So they’re able to give money but they’re not able to make people speak and use it in the best way.
Exactly. How do you establish those dialogues? How do you ensure accountability? This learning from each other is extremely important.
Salim Mohamed was selected as a TED Conference Africa Fellow for 2007. For more information about Caroline for Kibera, see cfk.unc.edu