Rye Barcott Goes to War

He came to Carolina as an officer trainee. By the time he caught up with the Marines, he had plenty of trial by fire in the desperate slums of East Africa.

Two o’clock in the morning and the noise is deafening. Rye Barcott ’01 gets dressed, grabs his machete. It sounds like war coming down outside his shanty in Kenya, and swarms of people are running toward the railroad tracks on the border of the Kiberan slums. Barcott follows the candles, the flashlights, the moonbeams that shine like an interrogation lamp; he follows the banging, to a man who lies bloodied in the middle of an enormous mob. He’s a thief, a mwizi, and his tale makes Barcott lose his voice. A villager stands over the mwizi. He appears to be flicking something at him. Spitting on him maybe.

Seconds later, the thief is in flames, and the jeering that awakened Barcott from his sleep immediately stops. Quiet falls on East Africa’s largest slum, and the mob disperses. When morning comes, small children and their parents pass the burn mark, an ugly scar on their orange horizon.

Barcott knows the man probably was trying to feed his family. He knows many young men just like last night’s mwizi. But what can you do? What can you do?

Another story, another day in Kibera: A woman comes to Barcott’s door. She has come to tell her tale, she says, but Barcott already knows it – she once was a nurse and now is a widow, three children, no job. It’s now the end of his summer, the end of his Burch Fellowship, and he knows all of Kibera’s sob stories. He’s heard them a thousand times over from different mouths, while their eyes focus on a white man’s wallet.

“I sympathize,” he tells them, “but I came here without money.” It’s a lie he has to tell. He has no interest in selling them dependence. Money is fleeting. Power is in understanding.

“But wait,” she says. “I need 2,000 shillings. I can do with it.” “What can you do?” He wants to know. She has a plan, she tells him with defiance. She will buy tomatoes cheap, three for 5 shillings, and then sell them, three for 10 at a neighboring market. She will take a bus each day, and she has figured this into the loan. She’ll keep going until she makes a profit, she says. Until she makes a life. Barcott will never see the woman again, he figures – he’s leaving the next day for Chapel Hill – so what the hell. He gives her the money, about $26 American.

He will buy an answer to a problem over an explanation of one anytime. Because that’s why he came to Kibera in the first place: to find answers to the absence of hope, the absence of peace, before he goes to war. It’s an odd choice of a summer holiday for a Marine Corps officer-in-training. But it’s one that will change him – and Kibera – for life.

Providence by birth

When you grow up in Rhode Island, especially in the posh East Greenwich public school system, you easily could live a life that mimics your state’s borders: small and bound, wealthy and near the bottom in charitable giving. Much of Rye Barcott’s expanse stretches wider, thanks to his college-professor parents, a sociologist and a nurse trained in anthropology. T.P. Schwartz ’71 (MA) and Donna Schwartz-Barcott ’70 (MSPH) met in 1972 in front of the housing office in Chapel Hill, a couple of self-described “products of the ’60s.” In Rye, T.P. hoped they would raise a young man who would give back to society; Donna wanted a son who would grow up kind and act with a good heart.

Every summer, T.P. orchestrated an elaborate car trip. Not the typical family jaunt to Disney World, but sojourns based on a path of logic, like tracing the gold rush trail out West by following a book on the subject and reading excerpts as they drove. At 12, Barcott saw Africa. “Rye immediately associated with our waiters and waitresses, the guides, people who didn’t have a lot,” says Donna Schwartz-Barcott. “They connected with him, and he with them.” There were other trips: a Cairo slum, where the Nile was one woman’s washboard and another boy’s toilet; a week in the Dominican Republic with his mother; and another week in a Kingston, Jamaica, slum with his father. There, Barcott saw victims of leprosy and elephantiasis, an experience he called “transforming.”

He was 13, “a very self-interested time in my life,” Barcott recalls. He couldn’t appreciate what he’d seen until he returned to the States. That’s when the culture shock hit. “I became a lot more interested in developing world issues,” he says. “To me, they are central. You have a world of over 6 billion people, and one half doesn’t live like the other. They don’t live on under $2 a day, and all the attending suffering, misery, that goes along with that.”

Two years later, he sat in front of the television, watching in horror the stories of Rwanda’s 1994 genocidal nightmare, when 800,000 people were murdered in a conflict fueled by political competitiveness but masked in ethnic fighting.

He saw kids his age doing the killing, machetes in hand. It was tough to understand, and it consumed his thoughts years later. So when it came time for college, his questions led him to apply to UNC, where his parents had both earned multiple advanced degrees. At the time, Carolina also was home to history and political science professors David and Catharine Newbury, a couple who had lived in Rwanda from 1969 to 1975, and again during the ’80s. (The Newburys left for Smith College in 2001.) Barcott wanted to study Africa – and particularly Rwanda. He had learned to speak Kiswahili. Ultimately, he wanted to immerse himself in the population, just as the Newburys had done.

The difference was that, at 19, Barcott asked for permission to attach himself to the Rwandan army. He wanted to write a historical account of how Uganda had intervened to effectively end the genocide, from both a military and political angle.

“To do that, I needed to interview the soldiers,” he says. But for a fresh undergraduate, “to be proposing to go get attached to an army and write a history about them … it’s pretty risky.”

It was, in other words, the perfect proposal to submit to UNC’s Burch Fellows program, which each year awards four undergraduates up to $6,000 to “pursue a passionate interest in a way and to a degree not otherwise possible.”

Apart from the usual requirements you might expect – a student who has demonstrated extraordinary ability and promise – the Burch, now 10 years old, looks for applicants whose potential projects would have a marked effect on their lives for years to come.

Imagination is the wheel that turns the Burch – if you can dream it, as they say, you can do it – and Barcott’s mind was rolling at a fine clip. In what even he now concedes was a “wild proposal,” Barcott made contact with the adviser to the president of Rwanda through e-mail. Then, “I just drove up to D.C. one day and walked into the embassy and said, hey, listen: This is who I am, and I want to write a history of what happened.”

Miraculously, they approved.

But in his junior year, six months before he was to leave, a bloody war broke out in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Barcott received a curt message from the office of the Rwanda cabinet: He was no longer welcome.

He had to think fast. He’d read about another place that intrigued him, one of the largest slums in the world and the largest in East Africa. Kibera, like Rwanda, “had this history of conflict between ethno-religious groups – Muslims, Catholics, five different ethnicities,” Barcott says. “There had been these short, periodic episodes where it convulsed into violence – 50 people die here, another 100 die there, another 150 there. So why did it happen? It was another way of addressing a similar type problem, and what I thought, and still to this day think, is a potential tinderbox.”

Not even a dot on the map

Despite the fact that about a million people live in an area the size of the UNC campus, Kibera did not officially exist. It was a labyrinth of mud devoid of government services, owned by the Kenyan president, whose mansion sat on a nearby hill overlooking it.

Barcott didn’t want to live like an American college student visiting Africa for the personal experience, and he didn’t want to attach himself to a church group that could not put him in contact with the youth he wanted to meet: those hired to kill for others, and those employed on the fringes. So he moved independently.

“The intent was basically to talk to youth, to live with youth, to find out why this violence occurred and what could be done to stop it,” Barcott says. “The method was important, because I went into Kibera, immediately linked up with some local youth leaders through various networks, and then lived in the slum, eventually renting a shanty there. That gave me segue into seeing how these folks really live and the social networks at play and how they do it. Literally.”

He also was mugged three times and witnessed, on more than one occasion, mob vigilantism like that which ended in the burning of a thief. But despite pleas for charity from Kiberans, he also came to be seen as just another resident by some.

“He used to wake up every morning and go jogging in Kibera, which was a little bit weird,” says Salim Mohamed, a Kibera resident whom Barcott now calls his best friend. “As you can imagine, seeing a white person so comfortable there was unusual.”

People in Kibera assigned him a nickname, Omondi, which means, “born very early in the morning.” He was taken with a place so desperate it doesn’t even merit a dot on the map.

The travel writer Bill Bryson once wrote of his visit to Kibera that, “In the rainy season, the whole becomes a liquid ooze. In the dry season it has the charm and healthfulness of a rubbish tip. In all seasons it smells of rot. It’s a little like wandering through a privy. Whatever is the most awful place you have ever experienced, Kibera is worse.”

“You might expect to see a lot of filth, a lot of dirtiness,” Barcott says, “and there is a lot of filth, and a lot of dirtiness – but it’s not within the people; it’s on the ground. But when you go into that atmosphere, it’s … it’s welcoming. There are kids running all over the place, screaming and yelling at you. You know, mothers and family and old women, and they’re all ambling about. And they’ve got multicolored kangas on, they’re singing, they’re shouting. It’s alive. I mean, it’s the most alive you can feel.”

Mohamed, who spent long hours talking with Barcott about fixing Kibera’s problems, said, “He earned our trust quickly. One of the things that made him welcome in Kibera is that he never gives up on anybody. He believes that it is the people who can help the community, not just money.”

Barcott learned that there were 2,000 charitable organizations in Kibera, none of them very effective. They lacked resources or the structure, leadership and philosophy to make a difference. And little, if anything at all, was being done to help youth.

‘A brilliant model’

Back in Chapel Hill for his senior year, Barcott looked down at the honors thesis he was typing about Kibera and saw a page full of letters and oceans of opportunity. He could do more than just write about it. At first, he thought he might just raise $20,000 and give it to local organizations in Kibera. Over Christmas, he decided, “What the hell, let’s just start an organization.”

“Their needs are overwhelming,” he says. “We can’t possibly comprehend it as Americans. Hunger – that basic. Or the fact that both your parents died five years ago from AIDS, and your sister is 80 pounds, on her last legs, and she’s a frickin’ skeleton. You touch her hand, and it’s like it’s on fire. So you’ve lost everything. That happens a lot.

“But Kibera is also a place with talent, human talent, I mean, a whole potential that is just reaching up to the heavens. But it has no avenue. If we can help give them that, how much can we do to help the future of the area?”

He came up with the name Carolina for Kibera and set to work raising funds.

He got a break, and a memorable experience, when UNC asked him to talk at a Carolina First fund-raiser at the Reynolds Plantation in Greensboro, Ga., owned by a chief fund-raiser for the Bush administration. Mercer Reynolds III ’67 had been a partner of the president in the Texas Rangers baseball franchise (and later, appointee to the ambassadorship of Switzerland). Barcott was taken by limousine to his presentation about a Third World slum.

A privilege to be asked, yes; but it also cut to the core of his beliefs. “It was just … total luxury, everywhere you looked,” Barcott says. “I’ve come to terms with it now, but I was just … irate that people would waste this kind of money.”

Nonetheless, Barcott’s talk raised $10,000 for Carolina for Kibera; additional grants from the University and its Center for International Studies yielded the $20,000 he needed to get back to Kibera and get the organization off the ground the summer after graduation.

He sought Mohamed as a partner to start a youth-run sports association, which they modeled after an existing program in the neighboring slum. Youth would play in free soccer leagues in exchange for community service, working and playing side by side with supposed enemies.

“It’s a brilliant model,” Barcott says. “And the community service is tough – they literally clean the sewers. There’s no sewage system in Kibera, so everything’s open, and it clogs up.”

What started as an effort to find youths who could serve as core leaders and essentially run Carolina for Kibera from Kibera blossomed into an organization of 10,000, with spin-offs like a girls’ soccer league, a medical clinic, a library and a community center for young girls that teaches HIV/AIDS prevention. Carolina for Kibera operates with only three paid, full-time staff, all in Kibera: a program coordinator, a youth coordinator, and a medical clinic director named Tabitha Festo. All of this on $50,000 a year.

“That was always our motto: ‘Listen, we represent money. But we’re not about money. This is about instilling a spirit of service, and if you don’t feel that, if you don’t want to do it … leave,’ ” Barcott says. “Any volunteer who breaks that trust, no matter how small it is – they’re gone.”

Barcott says it’s sometimes hard to find those kinds of youth in Kibera. But no harder than it is to find that kind of person in Rhode Island, or anywhere else in the world. You can’t change the future without changing the way it thinks.

“If you fathom this,” he continues, his voice going low and gravelly, the pitch of a man who has been up long hours trying to solve a problem, “half of Africa’s population – of Kibera’s population – is under the age of 15. Half of it. What does that mean in 10, 15 years? What does that mean in a lifetime?”

The few, the conflicted

When he was 14, Barcott embarked on something far more red-white-and-blue than developing-country volunteer work. On a cross-country visit with his father, he met Col. R.J. O’Leary, a retired Marine with whom Schwartz had served in Vietnam. O’Leary was a veritable legend who had started his military career as a private in World War II (earning a battlefield commission to officer) and went on to sustain gunshot wounds and lead battalions in Korea and Vietnam. He retired at age 50 to become, of all things, a Wyoming cattle rancher.

O’Leary looked a young Rye in the eye that summer and asked him if he’d like to have a real job.

Next thing the high school freshman knew, he was a cowboy at the Padlock Ranch in Sheridan, a boy in baggy green pants among spurred and hewed and chapped men from Texas, alone on a farm as big as his home state. He branded cattle. He wasn’t much of a roper, so he had to wrestle them.

“You’re just one big bruise at the end of the day,” he says. “It was great.” By the end of his time in Wyoming, the manager had appointed Rye to organize the days for all the ranch hands.

The ranch, and O’Leary, also helped Barcott decide on a future that ran side-saddle to his liberal upbringing: He enrolled at UNC on a Marine Corps Option NROTC scholarship.

His father had served in the Marine Corps. “But we didn’t talk much about the military at all when he was growing up,” says Schwartz-Barcott, who was surprised, and a little confused, by her son’s choice. “He didn’t really talk about it that much with us, either, before he applied. There are both negatives and positives to the military, and his father had encountered both. And he had also lost good friends. We probably would have tried to talk him out of it.”

The ROTC and UNC turned out to be a winning combination for Barcott. As an international studies and peace, war and defense double major, he had opportunities the average college student might never see. Within the first semester, says Schwartz-Barcott, Rye was traveling, meeting influential people and taking graduate-level courses in anthropology, surprising his parents with the amount of knowledge he could glean from any single course. He co-authored manuscripts on armed conflict in Africa and ethnic cleansing with leading experts and UNC professors. He taught an undergraduate course on ethnic cleansing as a senior and picked up accolades that would not seem dull on any resume, like Phi Beta Kappa.

He even got Pentagon approval for that ill-fated Rwanda trip when he was a junior, which he now chalks up to “blissful ignorance” on his chain of command’s part. But Barcott also became a commissioned officer just as Sept. 11 was changing the nation and the world. Before the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive defense. Before Iraq.

“He knew it was going to be hard,” says Schwartz-Barcott, who also serves on Carolina for Kibera’s board of directors. “There is nothing light about shifting from a humanitarian bent to going into a troop mentality and operating under beliefs you probably don’t have.”

To be sure, Barcott thinks “foreign aid is the ultimate way to fight terrorism. It just is. It’s much more effective than the gun.” And he is dubious about his country’s military role in Iraq. “What we’re doing is nation-building, really,” he says. “The military is not asking for this role, and they’re not trained to do it. This is complex stuff. I mean, building local capacity in a dictatorship after you’ve purged the entire political structure, which they’ve been criticized for – you’ve got to get rid of the senior leadership, you’ve got to get rid of the entire army – I don’t know.”

Barcott knows he has to put his feelings aside. Although he thinks the country for which he is bound to fight has lost a great deal of credibility in the world, “I respect the fact that I’m not in that decision-making position. You take the oath, you swear on the commission, and you exist to serve. And within that chain of command, I completely respect that and appreciate it. Is there some sort of personal conflict with the decisions that are made? Yeah, there is. But I think anybody who’s honest will have levels of that.”

Life at the poles

For now, he says, the inner conflict is squelched by the level of training and responsibility he’s received from the Marine Corps – and the flexibility he was afforded early on. He took three months unpaid leave after graduating and getting his commission in 2001 to go back to Kibera and set up Carolina for Kibera. After three years in operation and publicity from some major media outlets, Carolina for Kibera has benefited from a $25,000 grant from the Ford Foundation, and smaller private donations make up the rest of its $50,000 annual budget – which includes operations for the soccer league and medicine for the clinic. Still, about 4,000 youth are turned away from tournaments each year due to lack of funding.
Ultimately Barcott’s goal is to set up an endowment. But that is easier said than done when you’re gone most months out the year – he just returned to Camp Lejeune in January after a stint overseas and will deploy for six months this spring. This time he could be in Iraq.

The way Barcott juggles two different lives so effectively is a wonder to the people with whom he works at Carolina for Kibera. He does it, in part, by sacrificing. He gave up Christmas vacation with his family in 2002 to referee soccer in Kibera. After he returned to Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville from his latest overseas deployment in January, Barcott spent two weeks leave shoring up ties to Carolina for Kibera: a week in Chapel Hill, immersed in business; a couple of days in Washington, D.C., at the international law firm Patton Boggs, which does pro bono work for Carolina for Kibera; and then to New York to visit the Ford Foundation. In between, he made time to see his girlfriend in Greensboro and his parents in Rhode Island.

“It’s not easy,” he says. “Some of the challenges are extremely painful. Sometimes you want to throw in the towel. But, for me, none of it is work. I dream about how I’m going to get soccer balls here, or how to address a volunteer who’s made a threat to one of our sponsors. You wake up in the middle of the night, tossing around, figuring out how to fix things. That’s not really healthy. But I think CFK is just incredibly rewarding. We know we’re doing good stuff. We know it.”

Although there are reminders of Barcott’s optimism throughout Kibera, with UNC flags and Carolina basketball pictures hanging on the walls of the offices, there are few physical reminders of this other life – spoken or tangible – in his Marine Corps bunks. He has to keep Carolina for Kibera to himself, he says, “because what’s dangerous is that perception of ulterior priorities. I need to be aware of that all the time. If other people are really interested, then, sure, I’ll talk about it. But I find a lot of people really aren’t. It’s really distant from their reality, this type of organization, working in a slum in Africa.”

Can you be both an officer in a time of terror and a humanitarian in a place of despair? Can you go to sleep with a machete at your side and wake up believing in the future of a three-for-10-shillings tomato business? Doesn’t that defy all of our stereotypes? Maybe. But then again, maybe it’s the stereotype that’s unnecessarily defiant.

In his last deployment, he met a foreign politician, no older than 26, who was head of major government reform in a country that was not his birthplace. “And you talk about the arrogance of power: This guy was like a throwback to colonialism,” he says. ” ‘These people just don’t understand,’ the guy said. ‘We’re smarter than them. We will make this work. We will force it down their throats.’ “

Barcott shook his head. “That will never work anywhere,” he says. “It’s fundamentally flawed. And if you don’t appreciate that these folks have exactly the same damn amount of mental capacity – they might have different experiences, and they might have different accents – but you have to recognize that and appreciate culture. Once you put yourself in that position of power, you have enormous responsibility.”

He says he will sign up for a second tour when his first one runs out in 2005.

The sign on the clinic

The newly commissioned officer came back to Kibera before giving his life over to the Marine Corps. In an alley, he heard his nickname.

“Omondi! Omondi!” Before he knew what was happening, a woman, very familiar, grabbed him by the arm and led him to the front of a building. She led him.


She had waited lifetimes for this moment, it seemed. She had been mugged, she had been attacked, she had been hit numerous times. But the unemployed nurse had made good on her loan. Over the course of a year, she had sold tomatoes in dangerous areas until she had made a profit. Until she had made a life. She had given the young officer all the confirmation he needed that Kibera was a place of haci, a place of hope. This is what Tabitha Festo had in mind all along.

She pointed up.

“Rye Medical Clinic,” the sign on the building read; “Sacrificing in Success” – and now serving 80,000 people, 24 hours a day. What can you do with 2,000 shillings in the world’s worst slum? What can you do? Anything you can imagine.

Copyright 2004 UNC General Alumni Association

Published in Carolina Alumni Review, May/June 2004