Who is Steve?
My name is Stephen Omondi Opondo. I was born and raised in the informal settlement of Korogocho in Nairobi, Kenya.
What was it like growing up in Korogocho?
Frankly speaking, my childhood was challenging due to the environment I was brought up in. We faced numerous challenges such as not having proper social amenities- for example, a lack of social halls, sport arenas and playing grounds for young people to narture their talents and provide safe spaces for gathering. I lost friends at a young age due to their involvement in crime. I still think about them; perhaps if we had social amenities that these youth could have used to explore their talents, or if they had well off parents who were able to take them to school, they would still be here.
Most of the people living in informal settlements are marginalised and government services such as health care, quality education, proper sanitation are limited in these areas. During my time in school, primary education was not free, and many parents struggled to pay school fees for their children. Instead, organisations such as World Vision paid school fees for needy students from these areas. Thanks to World Vision scholarships, some of us were able to go to high school.
Can you describe the journey that led you to where you are today?
When I finished secondary school in 2003, I was not able to join tertiary education due to financial constrains. As a result, I started coaching football for children (aged 10 years and older) in our area to nurture their talents and prevent them from joining criminal/gang groups.
After my coaching sessions, I used to do garbage collection in the community to earn an income to sustain myself and support my family. From this money, I was able to save up enough money to go to university. With a little help from family and friends, I applied and successfully joined the University of Nairobi.
I pursued a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and Mass Communication, specialising in print media. After I finished my studies, I worked at the Nairobi office of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) on their ‘Freedom of expression’ project.
When the UNESCO project ended, I volunteered to attend an LPI training, focusing on teaching young people about peacebuilding. Through my engagement in peacebuilding and by promoting sports in my community, I was awarded a scholarship from the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung.
Currently, I am completing my Master’s Degree in Peace Studies and International Relations at Hekima University College.
Tell us how Simama Africa came about?
In 2007/2008, Kenya experienced post-election violence after a disputed general election. This drastically changed my life and the lives of my friends from Korogocho. We had to vacate our homes due to the security risks and sought shelter in a near-by school and stayed there almost a month. There, I met other young people who had left their homes and we had the opportunity to interact and bond.
We noticed that the perpetrators of the violence were mostly youth, which bothered us. We wanted to do something about it and, when the tension de-escalated and we went back to our homes, we decided to educate youth and children about peace through the coaching platforms we had established before the chaos erupted. We saw that engaging the youth in sports and focusing on mentorship was a way to change their mindsets and towards overcoming differences. We believe that by bringing young people together on a football team, we can squash negative perceptions of one another. Once they saw each other as teammates, their backgrounds did not matter as much. This was the basis for Simama Africa.
Why the name ‘Simama Africa’?
Simama means stand up in Swahili and we envisioned being a voice of reason for our community and rising up to create positive impact.
What does Simama Africa do?
We started out by training young men and women between ages of 10 - 17 in football, to overcome barriers, provide mentorship, and tackle challenges in the community such as sexual and reproductive health. The German Foundation for World Population supported us in conducting the sexual and reproductive sessions as well as capacity building for teenage mothers and out of school youth.
We finally registered the organisation in 2012 as a youth self-help group. In 2015, we registered as a community-based organisation, which enabled us to broaden our work to areas outside Korogocho, such as Kariobangi, Mathare, Babadogo, Eastleigh, and Huruma. So far, approximately 5,000 youth have gone through our process directly or indirectly and the United Nations Office for Sports and Peace and Development has officially recognised the peace work that we do in our community.
How has Simama Africa grown over the past few years?
We have continued to engage in sports for peace working with football coaches and captains to train them on conflict prevention, peacebuilding and sexual reproductive health. They then go on to train their teams and open every tournament with a session on one of these topics.
We have also been able to expand from using sports for peace to also focusing on peer education initiatives, community dialogues and conflict prevention. We do this by using case studies to demonstrate how violence can escalate and how we can either prevent or de-escalate conflict. We also talk about actors that can contribute to the escalation of violence in our community and how we should approach them.
We have also developed our physical facility to include a library where children can come to study, borrow books or get a tutor to help them with their studies. We also put on inspirational videos and movies that the youth can watch to broaden their imagination and understanding of the world. This is part of our efforts to develop safe spaces in the communities for young people to gather in.
What change would you want to see in five years?
In five years’ time, I would love to see our mentees leading the way to bring positive change in our community. I want to see a peaceful and prosperous community where people co-exist harmoniously and appreciate diversity.
Do you have any parting words you want to share?
I want to urge youth to strive to serve their communities and volunteer for noble causes, because they will learn a lot and get exposure. I also want society to give us a break and do away with harsh judgements and negative stereotypes against youth.
Young Peace builders’ diary is a series of interviews with young people in the Horn of Africa to document their contributions to peace and security in the region.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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