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Looking for hope instead of an exit in a Kenyan slum

Kepha Ngito is working to ease ethnic and religious tensions in Kibera, the Nairobi slum that is a potential flash point ahead of Thursday's presidential election.

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His parents thought he was crazy. With a good secondary education behind him, Kepha Ngito could have had his pick of jobs and escaped the grinding poverty of Kibera, the biggest slum in sub-Saharan Africa.

Instead, he stayed to start a charity helping other young people find work – and hope – in a shantytown of 1 million people crammed in an area about the size of Central Park.

"Our parents came to Nairobi looking for jobs. For them, Kibera is a platform for their search for a better life," says Mr. Ngito in the mud-brick building he calls home. "But this is our home. That's why we see the need for change."

Now, as Kenya lurches toward Thursday's presidential polls, his Kibera Community Youth Program (KCYP) has taken on new importance as it aims to ease the slum's religious and ethnic tensions, historically exploited by rival politicians in past elections to further their own ambitions and aims.

Already, local newspapers have been carrying daily reports from around the country of homes being looted, cars torched, and candidates attacked.

Since April, Ngito has been trying soothe these difference by building bridges among the more than 100 young people – of various backgrounds – involved in his youth program, which organizes theater projects, raises awareness about HIV/AIDS, records music that interweaves social messages, or simply puts on soccer matches.

He also offers job training to young people and helps them start businesses – an effort to ensure that Kibera's tough existence does not condemn them to a life of poverty, disease, and glue-sniffing.

Kibera is a microcosm of Kenyan society. It has a large Luo population drawn from the shores of Lake Victoria. Their representative, Raila Odinga, is the main challenger to President Mwai Kibaki – from the other dominant tribe, the Kikuyu – making Kibera a potential flash point for violence.

One of Ngito's colleagues admits a past as a rabble-rouser. Felic Oduor Otieno says he used to organize stone-throwing boys for politicians seeking office.

"They approach you and offer money for you to mobilize the youth for them," he says. "So I wasn't one of the ones throwing stones, but I was involved in bringing in the boys."

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