Marine’s memoir details two kinds of service

Promotional video: It Happened on the Way to War

A young resident of Kibera, in Nairobi, shares a "gota" fist-bump with Rye Barcott, a Marine veteran who cofounded a nongovernmental organization designed to help its residents.


By BILL MURPHY JR. | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 13, 2011

WASHINGTON — The aches and chills started a few days before the end of Rye Barcott’s summer research trip to Kenya, where he’d been studying and living in one of Africa’s roughest slums. He’d taken his anti-malaria pills religiously, but a nurse he’d befriended there confirmed his fears. He’d come down with a mild case of the infectious disease.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Barcott was heading home to attend U.S. Marine Corps officer candidate school, perhaps the military’s toughest induction program, before finishing his senior year at the University of North Carolina.

Barcott gutted his way through OCS, and he served in the Marines from 2001 to 2006. Meanwhile, he simultaneously co-founded a nongovernmental organization designed to help the people of that Nairobi slum, Kibera, an area the size of Central Park. The two parallel experiences now form the backbone of his new memoir, “It Happened on the Way to War.”

Barcott said this week that he wrote the book to inspire young people to try to change the world.

“I hope this has a broad appeal regardless of age,” he said, “but the audience that I really wrote it for were college and high school students, folks that are thinking about the difference they want to make in the world. ‘Young doers’ would be a way of saying it. You don’t have to wait for wealth, or status or title. You can do it now.”

Barcott’s story is one of simultaneous and almost contradictory notions of service.

Just before heading home from his first trip to Kibera, he’d handed the equivalent of $26 to his nurse friend, who wanted to start a business selling vegetables. When he returned to Kenya on leave the following summer as a newly minted second lieutenant, Barcott found the woman, Tabitha Atieno Festo, hadn’t just succeeded as an entrepreneur. She’d used her small profit to open a medical clinic.

The Marine, the nurse, and a third partner, a Kenyan community organizer named Salim Mohamed, founded Carolina for Kibera in 2001, funded initially by the UNC community. The program’s mission is to empower local leaders to come up with their own health, social and economic programs and improve their lives.

For example, the organization runs soccer leagues in which teams must be made up of players from several rival ethnic groups. Players commit to help clean up the trash-strewn slum as part of the deal. The medical clinic that Festo started has moved into larger, more permanent quarters, and now serves 40,000 patients a year.

All the while, as Barcott helped lead the organization, he simultaneously deployed to Bosnia from 2003 to 2004, the Horn of Africa from 2004 to 2005, and finally, Iraq from 2005 to 2006.

The experience of switching gears constantly, returning from Marine intelligence missions to check in with Festo and Mohamed in Kenya, and spending almost all of his leave time either traveling to Nairobi or fundraising for the project back in the United States, was both draining and stimulating.

“The way that I processed these experiences was by building mental compartments,” he explained. “I tried to separate the two worlds, but the greatest revelations happened when the two worlds converged and collided.”

For example, when he had to interrogate an 11-year-old Iraqi child suspected of murder, Barcott couldn’t help but draw on his experience working with poor children in Africa. Moreover, his experience as a leader in the Marines shaped the empowering leadership style he tried to employ in Carolina for Kibera.

After leaving the Marines, Barcott earned master’s degrees at Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. He works now on sustainable energy issues for Duke Energy in Charlotte, N.C., where he lives with his wife and daughter.

He’s still on Carolina for Kibera’s board of directors, and an active volunteer. He’ll head back to Kenya in July.

He said writing the book took several years, in part because he originally wanted to focus purely on Africa and leave himself out of the story.

“I was rejected twice,” he said. “Didn’t get any replies. Finally I tracked down an agent. She said, ‘We don’t think another book on Africa is going to sell [unless] you change your entire narrative and put yourself more into this.’ She was right, but it took me a while to actually hear it.”


On leave from the Marines in December 2004, Rye Barcott works on a cleanup project with youth in the Kenyan slum of Kibera.