South Charlotte

Author discusses book's message

Myers Park Clubhouse ballroom was filled recently with UNC Chapel Hill graduates, students and fans of the memoir, "It Happened on the Way to War."

The book was written by Charlotte resident Rye Barcott.

Barcott, 32, has recently finished a 40-city tour, talking chiefly to high school and college students about his book, which was released in late March.

"It's a thrill to be here," said Barcott, who works in Duke Energy's sustainability office in an effort to help with the problem of climate change.

While attending UNC, Barcott went to the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. He lived with a local in a 10-by-10 shack with raw sewage filling the alleyway outside the door. Despite poverty, disease and tribal warfare, Barcott saw people's ability to unlock their talents and make their world better when they had the opportunity.

Barcott met a local woman, Tabitha Festo, who asked for $26. She promised him she could start a new life selling vegetables in a nearby town and eventually open a medical clinic. Barcott saw a passion in Festo that made an impression. He gave her the money.

In December 2000, during his senior year in college, Barcott started a nonprofit, Carolina for Kibera, that focused on the slum's youth, giving them the opportunity to use their talents.

With co-founder Salim Mohamed of Kibera, one of the programs Barcott established was a sports association to teach healthy life choices and promote peace.

After graduating, Barcott, who had an ROTC scholarship, was commissioned in the Marines, but asked for three months leave to return to Kibera to implement programs.

When he saw Festo again, she took him to her newly established medical clinic funded from her vegetable sales. Now, with the help of Carolina for Kibera, it is a three-story building that serves 40,000 people a year.

Back in the Marines, Barcott went on to serve in Iraq, Bosnia and the Horn of Africa.

"I thought I'd be prepared for my missions, but I wasn't," Barcott told the crowded ballroom. "Within days I'd become so numb to the circumstances in Iraq, I wasn't even seeing kids for what they were. I was looking at their waistlines for weapons."

Usually, Barcott kept his two worlds separate. On duty, he fought in a war with the hope of eventual peace. On leave, he fostered unity and understanding in Kibera with the hope of preventing war.

The worlds collided when he saw an 11-year-old assassin playing soccer with another juvenile prisoner in an Iraqi prison.

"At some point, we have to stop and say to ourselves, there must be a better way," he said.

Barcott began writing his book about Kibera 10 years ago. After leaving the military in 2006, Barcott attended graduate school at Harvard where he finished his book.

"I had a mentor who had been in the military for many years and he encouraged me to write about my time in the military," Barcott said. "This book is a blend of that and my experience in Africa - how those experiences have clashed and converged."

He started his speech by telling the audience he hoped to leave them with two main points: the importance of a participatory existence and the universality of talent.

"You don't have to wait to make an impact," Barcott said.

The example that embodied both his points was Festo and her medical clinic.

After his talk and some questions, the audience lined up to have their copies of his book signed. A portion of every book sold goes to Carolina for Kibera.

"We have to work with others. The change begins with that small group of thoughtful citizens," Barcott said. "Relationships rooted in trust still matter. There are Tabitha's in your lives, remarkable people who you can help in small but significant ways."