Hustling NGOs: coming of age in Kibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya
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This is a dissertation about Kibera, a large informal settlement on the margins of Nairobi, Kenya. Based on seven years of ethnographic fieldwork and related participant observation, this thesis explores the interactions between young people, grassroots groups, and national and international NGOs in Kibera and how these influence youth journeys to adulthood. International development practitioners working in Kibera have focused their efforts on young people, especially given Kenyan census figures documenting that 78% of Kenya's population is below the age of 35. This demographic trend poses both challenges and opportunities, but Kenya's gerontocratic leadership has, for the most part, failed to find solutions to improve opportunities for young people. Population increases have resulted in increases in crime, income inequality, and un- and underemployment. These changes are exacerbated by protracted liminality, a long period of ambiguous status, experienced by young men and sanctioned by custom as a way to moderate inter-generational tensions. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fill in the gaps and compensate for the failure of public policy by providing basic social services to improve the systemic political, economic and social issues affecting Kibera’s youth. This study follows a group of young men who have discovered that they can alleviate their liminality by practicing resourcefulness in Nairobi’s vast informal economy, an action colloquially referred to as "hustling." Specifically, these youth hustle the "shadow aid economy" that has emerged as a byproduct of Kibera's saturated NGO environment. The outcome of this is not an upending of the traditions of age and seniority in Kenya—these young men will continue to experience liminality in certain contexts and situations. The ultimate result is that youth create networks of reciprocity and build internal hierarchies in the settlement as they hustle, which leads the most successful NGO hustlers to create alternate means of advancement and shift the criteria of respectability to accelerate their progress towards adulthood.