Carolina for Kibera founder returns to UNC 10 years later


Rye Barcott, a UNC alumni, lectured in the FedEx Global Center to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Carolina for Kibera, the organization he co-founded, and the release of his book, It Happened On the Way to War. In his book, Barcott describes his experiences while working in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa. While he was there, Barcott said, he learned that “talent is universal, but opportunity is not.”

Ten years later, Rye Barcott returned to where it all began.

Barcott came to the University Tuesday to celebrate the release of his first book, “It Happened on the Way to War,” which coincides with an art exhibit meant to commemorate the tenth anniversary of Carolina for Kibera, a group he started as a UNC student.

“Here in Chapel Hill, where it all started,” he said.

The book starts when Barcott received a scholarship through the Burch Fellows Program at UNC to conduct research in Rwanda on ethnic violence. After 9/11 security restrictions forced him to change his plans, he redirected to Kibera.

Upon seeing the poor conditions in Kibera, Barcott decided to take action.

“In our world of plenty, people shouldn’t have to live like this,” he said.

Barcott said the first thing he did was give $26 to a woman from Kibera named Tabitha Atieno Festo, who managed to use that money to sell vegetables and start a clinic that now treats more than 40,000 patients a year.

He then helped to found Carolina for Kibera, which supports Festo’s clinic and a soccer league that works to create role models in the community and fight ethnic violence in the area.

“In order to play soccer, you have to do community service,” Barcott said of the program.

The initiative has also created health programs and a girl’s center.

“We started with about $20,000; now we run on about $1 million a year,” Barcott said.

Barcott became a marine soon after graduating from UNC and juggled his work in the military with his work in Kibera.

“The key to doing both was: I wasn’t running that organization, I’m not running that organization, it’s being run in Kibera,” he said.

In fact, Barcott said one employee runs the program in the United States while 60 Kenyans work on it in Kibera. But people at UNC said they are impressed that Barcott took the initiative to begin the program in the first place.

Rosemary Johnson, a sophomore, said she came to the event to hear about Barcott’s work.

“I was really inspired by how humble he was, and how he was really focused on ­— this isn’t me doing this, other people have the ability to do this,” she said.

While speaking, Barcott emphasized his motto — talent is universal, but opportunity is not.

“Those solutions exist within those particular countries,” he said.
Other talents from Kibera — artistic ones — are being displayed in the FedEx Global Education Center.

Laura Griest, manager of global events and exhibition at the FedEx Global Education Center, said this exhibit differs from most displayed in the building, because the UNC community has been more involved.

“We’re highlighting Kiberans’ work, but they’re Kiberans we know,” Griest said. “It’s a little more meaningful and beneficial.”

While most of the work is from Kiberans, the largest piece of the museum is a 10-by-10 shack built from recycled materials.

The structure is intended to emulate similarly sized Kiberan homes, which the community builds using whatever resources are available to them.

While Carolina for Kibera is celebrating its tenth year of work, Barcott believes the group has more to do.

“We’re looking to expand what the community needs,” he said.

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