To End Poverty, Put a Criminal in Charge

The World Cup: Kenya's former king of thugs may just play in the next one.

John the General was not that tall, for a murderer. I expected someone who loomed menacing and mean. He was deeply feared in Nairobi, Kenya. They called him "The General" because he had worked his way up the ranks of the Luo-tribe gang in one of the world's biggest slums, Kibera. John Oyoo ruled over some 200 gang members who ran drugs, bullied, extorted, mugged, beat, and killed the slum's 1.5 million shoulder-to-shoulder residents who already suffered unimaginable lack of food, shelter, water, and air.

It was John, with his "Deputy General" Bernard Ngira, who led the torching of Toi Market in the 2007-2008 post-election violence in Kenya. It was they who, angry at local police, retaliated on their own people--the working poor--by burning down the outdoor market that sold beans, rice, used clothing, and whatever else folks used to barter their daily survival.

John the General Meets Jonah, My Son

Traveling to Kenya to meet John, I brought my thirteen-year-old son Jonah with me. They both bore strong names of prophets from the Christian and Hebrew bibles, and they were about the same height and wiry size. Jonah wanted to see Africa--the real Africa, not the one on tourist postcards--and when he met John, he showed no fear at all.

As a mother, I kept thinking that if one scrambled a few letters in their names they'd have had radically different life experiences. Jonah had grown up in a small town in northern California with everything that parents dream of giving our kids: vaccinations, nourishing food, a solidly built house, clean water, engaging school, loving family. Even Ben&Jerry's, Facebook, and Tivo. Jonah had all I could give him and had already blossomed smarter and wiser at thirteen than I'd ever be. He'd been given opportunity and responded by evolving the species.

And I guess it sort of happened that way for John, too, but with a different sort of mother, in a much more redemptive way, after years of crime, drugs, and violence.

John told us his story in the offices of Jamii Bora ("Good Family" in Kiswahili;, Kenya's largest noncommercial microfinance organization, where Mr. Oyoo now works as a staff member and manager of a metal-box business. He walked with us through the Kibera slums that he used to terrorize, and the Toi Market he burned down--and later rebuilt.

Like Jonah, John started life with a mother who loved him. Like Jonah, he was one of the smartest kids in school, easily ace-ing tests and learning seven languages and all the local dialects. He was bored and restless, skipping school and experimenting with trouble. At 17 he ran away from his country village to seek his fortune in the big city. . . and ended up in the urban slums.

Burning Down the Market, then Blocking Aid to Victims

Always the quick study, John quickly saw that "I could get a job hauling water for 200 shillings a day, or I could watch this house where drugs were being sold for 500 a day." He soon graduated from dealers' spy to drug runner, then to mugging people. "Suddenly I could make thousands, in about twenty minutes," he recalled.

There is a method in Kenya in which thugs will jump you from behind, compress the neck to choke you, and with or without killing you will take your possessions while you are paralyzed. This does not require the expense of a weapon. John became so adept that he decided to take over the neighborhood, intimidating young men into working for him.

In January 2008, having terrorized the community and burned down its stores, John the General presided at its entrance, barring aid workers from delivering food and water to desperate families left in the smoking rubble. This was his turf, and no one was going in.

What John had never faced during years of desperate addiction to violence now came forward, got in his face, and would not go away: a young man named Andrew Onyanga, field officer for local NGO Jamii Bora.

Andrew approached John with this proposal: Help us rebuild the marketplace, act as security officers during the construction, and we will enable every one of your thugs to begin legitimate businesses after.

"I will kill you right now," John told Andrew, machetes in both hands.

"So kill me if you will," the slim man in librarian's glasses responded. "I am not going away. Here at Jamii Bora, we love you and we know there is a good person inside of you."

A Chance to Rebuild--the Market and the Man

Andrew had the backing of every mother from Kibera, who literally stood with him in solidarity as he returned to face down John the General, day after day. He also had the backing of the one mother whose faith in John changed everything: the founder of Jamii Bora, a Swedish daughter of missionaries named Ingrid Munro. Ms. Munro had worked tirelessly for decades in affordable housing in Kenya and had been just about to retire, "to write a book," she told us, "on the lack of logic in development--the fact that charity doesn't work."

Just then, fifty street beggars who already knew Munro clutched at her skirts, metaphorically speaking, and would not let go until she would help them form a microfinance organization. "We provide the ladder," she muses, "but it is up to each person to climb out of poverty for themselves."

Now serving more than 250,000 urban and rural Kenyans, Munro has become "Mama Ingrid" to all of her members. Beginning in 1999, she had nearly a decade building Jamii Bora when the kiosks of 80,000 of her very own members were destroyed by John.

And she embraced him.

"By all means," she recalls, "we should have been a dead organization after this." But while fearless Andrew was facing down the thugs at Toi Market, dauntless Ingrid was on the telephone and email, sending urgent requests for funding of materials to reconstruct the market. Seattle-based Unitus (, with whom I traveled to Kenya to meet John, responded swiftly and generously to the crisis.

Toi Market Today

And with the overseeing of John the General, the market was redesigned from 1,700 to 2,500 stalls, grouped by category--produce, clothing, hardware--with wide dirt paths to get carts in and out and accommodate lots of shoppers. John and his gang became security guards, keeping watch over piles of lumber and corrugated steel by night, ensuring smooth operations by day. When the market reopened "like a phoenix," the former "hooligans" worked as night watchmen over the merchants' precious livelihoods.

Mama Ingrid and the staff of Jamii Bora convinced the local victims of John's arson and violence to accept him and his boys into their community, give them another chance, and rent stalls as vendors. They went to court with the boys and pleaded amnesty for all past crimes.

"Mama Ingrid believed in me when no one else would. It is because of Jamii Bora that there is peace," John tells us. He looks at Jonah and smiles such a broad, toothy smile that you would never imagine him hurting anyone.

"And because I turned my life around, my girlfriend married me," he beams, "and I could be a father to my son." The couple now has a daughter as well. "Do you know how good it feels for someone to call you Daddy?" he asks.

John later took the long bus back to visit the country village of his birth, where news had most certainly reached his mother of his killing ways. She welcomed John with open arms, and "we both cried for three days," he recalls.

I think of Africa as the motherland of us all, and in John's shining brown eyes I could see that he'd been truly mothered--by his birth mother in the village, his boss-mother at Jamii Bora, and countless generous mothers of Kibera. He had found a father, too, in himself. Later, on the long plane ride home, Jonah would tell me that it was John who held the greatest veracity for him, in his true story of building a new life out of ashes.

From Slum Gang to Division II Team

With a current national population of 40 million, Kenya has actually increased to 56% poverty in 2010, according to Kenya Broadcasting Corporation. More and more people need access to the kind of business opportunity provided by such organizations as Jamii Bora, which has also led the way in providing cell phone banking, matched savings, life and health insurance (including maternal care and HIV care, rare on this continent), financial and business education, and peer and addiction-recovery counseling.

And no one knows better than John the General that Kenya needs peace. For him, the one thread of continuity from his childhood to now has been an obsession with soccer. As teams from all over the world vie for the World Cup in South Africa this month, John and Bernard have built a team of their own that unites thirty men from twelve tribes in a Division II championship level team called Kibera Celtic (

The team, not yet one year old, dubbed themselves "the SlumBoys," modeled after a team from Glasgow, Scotland's poor East End neighborhood that also had forged bonds between clashing ethnic groups. reports: "Mostly barefoot and wearing Celtic tops with sponsors' names dating back up to 20 years, they surprised everyone with their incredible skills, self-taught in the slums using rolled-up cloth as a ball and tree branches for goal posts." They've won 6 out of 7 matches already. Maybe next time, we'll see them in the World Cup.