My Biggest Surprise Visiting Africa’s Largest Slum: Facebook

A young boy plays in Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by USGLC.

Like most westerners, I don’t disconnect from my smartphone very often. But I didn’t have a choice earlier this year when I traveled to Kenya.

While the spotty Internet wasn’t a big surprise, nothing prepared me for a visit to the streets of the Kibera slum. It was haunting. I’d never seen such extreme poverty. And yet, I also found inspiration in the most unexpected place.

Our group entered the muddy streets of the slum, home to hundreds of thousands of people who have no electricity or running water. I maneuvered through the trash-lined ditches and tin-paneled mud huts. As barefoot children peered out, waving with smiles on their faces, I didn’t know if I wanted to smile back or cry.

Children in Kibera slum, Nairobi. Photo by USGLC.

As we approached one of the commerce sections of the slums, I met a remarkable young man named Onyango.

Standing outside his cybercafe, he welcomed us into the small shack. Some of the taller men with us had to bend down to enter the tiny room, which was filled with a few broken chairs and stations of computers. Not much decorated the wall other than a Coca-Cola sign, a poster with pricing for computer time, and a painting of Barack and Michelle Obama. I asked our host to explain.

Onyango shared that he’d always dreamed of using his technology skills to start his own business. With the help of a USAID-funded project (thus the painting of our President and First Lady), Onyango was coached and mentored on basic business skills.

Despite the unreliable electricity — a few hours a day at most — he’s now grown his business from three computer stations to ten. And his business employs two at-risk youth in this conflict-prone area of Kenya, where it’s common for gangs and violent groups to exploit young people.

Onyango in his cybercafe. Photo by USAID.

I was impressed. His cybercafe had become a kind of global town square, where kids stop by to do homework and adults apply for driver’s licenses. I asked Onyango why most people come to use the Internet.

He smiled and said, “To check their Facebook accounts.”

It was incredible to see that in a place of such poverty, people were hungry to connect with the world.

Today, more than four billion people on this planet still do not have access to the Internet. As Mark Zuckerberg and Bono recently wrote in the New York Times:

If you want to help people feed, heal, educate and employ themselves around the world, we need to connect the world as well. The Internet… should be seen as a necessity for development, and a tool that makes larger things possible.

Fortunately, this issue is gaining attention thanks to industry leaders, NGOs, and policymakers. In September, world leaders put forth the challenge to bring Internet access to all. And bipartisan efforts from the Administration to Capitol Hill are working to help bridge the gap in access.

Groups like Facebook, the Gates Foundation, and the ONE Campaign have joined together in a call to action urging leaders and innovators to bring connectivity to the rest of the world.

As for me, I still see those children smiling from the windows of their mud huts, and I wonder: what if they too could connect? Could that cybercafe offer them a window to the world that will change their lives for the better? Onyango’s story gives me hope for our future.

Onyango’s cybercafe: a story of success. Photo by USGLC.