Making it: Understanding Adolescent Resilience in Nairobi Slums
By: Caroline Kabiru, Research Scientist & Head of Urbanization & Wellbeing Program
May 7th 2012
Life is an interesting journey- it puts us in touch with people like ourselves, and with others who've walked a completely different path. It amazes me that even with a single office building, amongst colleagues doing very similar work, the journeys to where our lives intertwine are so remarkably different. Some have a relatively ‘easy' journey while others have toiled and fought against all odds. These different pathways invoke two questions: how do people who have undergone severe hardship in childhood and youth, 'make it' or become successful? And what can we learn from these people that can enable us to help others in similar situations?
I grew up in a middle-class home where I lacked little, had educated parents who dedicatedly followed my academic progress and ensured that my siblings and I had everything we needed, corrected us when we went astray, and sacrificed much to ensure that we got the best they could afford. Under such circumstances, it almost seems unremarkable that we all completed our education and are 'gainfully' employed. Others - my parents included-balanced school with herding animals, fetching firewood, reading under the light of the cooking fire, and sometimes lacking what some might consider basic necessities. And yet, they 'made it' - graduated from university, got good jobs, raised a family, and got to that point where life's basic necessities have been adequately met and they can now afford some luxuries.
Stories of Success:
These stories of success serve as the inspiration for the study on how and why some young people in urban slums 'make it''. In other words, they progress successfully through adolescence and do well in school, avoid 'risk behaviors' and participate in civic activities (including voluntary community service), despite living in such adverse conditions. In the study, we call this success-despite-all-odds, resilience.
The Study- Friends Matter Most:
The study was based on data collected from boys and girls aged 12-19 years living in two Nairobi slums. We found that 'resilient' young people tended to have supportive parents who closely monitored their children's whereabouts, friends and activities; kept friends who valued education and avoided risk behaviors; and belonged to a religious group and valued the role of religion. Of these, the young person's peers was most consistently linked with resilience. This is hardly surprising-increased identification with peer groups is a key characteristic of adolescence; a young person whose friends avoid risk behaviors such as smoking and drinking, will also tend not to smoke or drink.
Community Values and Research:
Out of curiosity - this must be the reason why I ended up in research - I asked my mother to share the story of her journey: She told me that having a mother, whose own parents valued education enough to make sure that she - my grandmother valued- got at least some basic education, ensured that my mother and her siblings, had a positive role model. My grandmother also encouraged her children, especially the girls, to do well in school and emphasized strong moral values. Growing up in a community that upheld strong moral values was also important. However, it is clear that a person's motivation and drive also play a role. Having grown up during the early 1950s when the British colonial government declared a state of emergency, she and her siblings witnessed the suffering that may women underwent when fathers and other able men were forced to leave home and work for the colonial government or on white settlers' farms leaving their families in the villages wallowing in poverty. To my mother, that was a strong motivation to do the best that she could so that she could "leave the village and the poverty behind". So to her, it was a mix of a supportive social environment and enough personal determination. And succeed she did - of about ten girls in her primary school class, she was in the five that made it to secondary school. Of the five girls, she's the only one who made it to the university!
Lessons - The Social Context Matters:
Overall, my mother's story and the study's findings tally. Resilience is not just a matter of individual character but also of the society one grows up in. In other words, the social context matters. In the paper, we argue that the findings obtained in our study suggest that parents - and the community - should be involved as informal social control agents in programs designed to address youth risk behavior, empowerment and well-being. Our study also suggests a need for policies and programs that increase young people's access to education, recreational services and opportunities for civic involvement. This will help ensure that young people are adequately involved in activities that promote their well-being and keep meaningfully engaged.
This blog is based on a paper titled: "Making It: Understanding Adolescent Resilience in Two Informal Settlements (Slums) in Nairobi, Kenya" published in the Journal, Child & Youth Services Vol.33, Issue 1, 2012.