For young people in Kenya, especially those living in the slums like Kibera, a second chance is a blessing. Many teenagers indulge themselves in various criminal activities that end up with them harming themselves or spending the rest of their lives in jail. These teenagers have become very tired of burying their friends or family members.
These youth, however, have the power and potential to enact change in their communities, symbolized by a common basic item that stands as testament of struggle, resourcefulness, and sheer determination: a shoe. Shoes dangling on power lines and telephone cables have long been shrouded in secrecy and suspicion across the world. In various societies, they are associated with sinister motives. For example, the United States and parts of Latin America, associates this with gangs and cartels marking their territories. It can also be signified as an informal memorial of where a gang member was killed. Some even believe it represents a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood.
But to John Omondi, it represents a second chance. John, who was raised in Soweto, a village in Kibera, experienced the darkest moments of his life when he saw some of his friends’ deaths. Omondi said in an interview, “I can tell you for a fact that if you did not live in this neighborhood and happened to pass by here innocently, chances are that you would have been taken to a nearby forest, beaten up and robbed, that was the sad reality back then.” He knew that he really needed to change this narrative, and who better to tell this story than someone who nearly lost his life in a gang group?
John says that hundreds of youth became fully immersed in a life of crime, mugging at gunpoint and selling drugs. The chances that they would have an opportunity to turn their life around and chart a new course one day, he narrated, seemed like a pipe dream until recently. Omondi states, “I started this car wash and told those involved in crime to abandon their past lives, come work at the car wash and earn an honest living as reformed and outstanding members of society.”
The dangling shoes have become a landmark for residents in Soweto. Although different interpretations have been put about the origin of the shoes, in Soweto, they simply signify change. “Many that pass by here are often confused, though many automatically say they are fallen soldiers…this however is not the true story” says Billard Odhiambo, another resident of Kibera.
The Soweto car wash has become a haven for the neglected and a beacon of hope for many who thought a second chance was nothing but a mirage. Omondi has made it accessible to anyone willing to change their life by setting a few guidelines in order to keep them on the right course. “When the youth come to me and say that they want to change their lives, I first ask what they did. Most are largely petty offenders,” he said. “So, I ask them to come with a pair of their shoes, often their best which was used in the crime activity. When they make that commitment to change, I usually challenge them to fling them on to the power lines. This then signifies that their life in crime is behind them and from there they can start working at the car wash.” It is a simple yet meaningful practice that has now changed the life of hundreds of youth who earn their salaries washing vehicles that was an infamous drug den just a decade ago. Billard Odhiambo says just two years ago that he was not sure whether he would live to see his 20th birthday. But ever since he began working at the car wash he has been able to grow and even get job opportunities through the support and mentorship of John Omondi.