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The Daily Tar Heel

A story for all Tar Heel ‘doers’

This week I’m branching out from my usual theme to explain why I think Rye Barcott’s new book “It Happened on the Way to War” should be required reading for UNC students.

At its heart, Rye’s book is a humbling account by a recent alumnus who decided that he wanted to be a “doer.”

If you’ve been to the FedEx Global Education Center or attended the lectures on campus over the past fortnight, you probably know the story: 2001 graduate Rye Barcott co-founded Carolina for Kibera, an NGO working “to develop local leaders, catalyze positive change and alleviate poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi.”

Many Tar Heels aspire to public service in the form of community development, international engagement or even serving their country in uniform. Rye did all three, overseeing CFK’s rise while training and deploying as a Marine officer across the globe.

And what a rise it was. The NGO arose out of a 2000 Burch Fellowship research trip, where Rye latched onto the concept of participatory development and met co-founders Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Atieno Festo. The team met unstinting fundraising challenges and overcame logistical and security hurdles to thrive in the rough world of east Africa’s largest slum.

By 2006, CFK had been named a “Hero of Global Public Health” by Time Magazine and earned support from the Ford and Gates foundations, as well as making the itinerary for then-Senator Barack Obama’s visit to Kenya. Today CFK has a budget of $500,000, and partners with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But this isn’t just a story about CFK: Student readers stand to gain the most from Rye’s narration of the nitty-gritty of making change happen.

He writes the experience of raising $20,000 during his senior year (primarily from University donors) to get CFK off the ground. One learns about organizational leadership, and managing the relationship between engaged oversight from abroad while ensuring firm local control.

We learn about the importance of effectively judging character: In the right hands, $26 laid the foundation for clinics serving 40,000 people per year, while elsewhere thousands of dollars into school planning saw a far lesser return.

Rye is even candid about strains of international commitments: He had to balance his goals with a relationship with his future wife who had never even left the United States.

I’ll admit, the accounts of running human intelligence operations as a Marine officer in Bosnia, East Africa and Iraq may appeal to a slightly narrower UNC audience — the PWAD and ROTC crowd perhaps (though Rye does try to tie in lessons learned there to the broader theme of impact).

But overall, this is UNC’s very own Three Cups of Tea, Kibera-style, sharing lessons learned the hard way.

And Rye’s success through a phenomenal work ethic, with just a little luck, throws down the gauntlet to the complacent and would-be naysayers who would doubt the power of youth impact.

If you’re willing to be challenged to work harder, reach higher and aspire to change the world by a UNC graduate who has done just that, this book is a treasure.

Mark Laichena is a columnist from The Daily Tar Heel. He is a junior political science and peace, war and defense major from London, UK. Contact him at

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