Local Marine Launches Non-Profit Jewelry Store For African Slum

Sonny Tai
Updated 7/3/2013 1:55 PM
  • Camp Bastion, Afghanistan 2012 Then-First Lieutenant Sonny Tai

    Camp Bastion, Afghanistan 2012 Then-First Lieutenant Sonny Tai

Walk into any Marine Corps Recruiting Office, and you'll likely see at least one poster bearing the Ronald Reagan quote: "Some people wonder all their lives if they've made a difference. The Marines don't have that problem."

For Marine Captain Sonny Tai, who graduated from James B. Conant High School in 2004 and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2009, his passion for making a difference extends beyond his four year active duty career.

Sonny's passion for Africa stems from his formative years - he grew up in South Africa for six years with his mother and younger sister after his father passed away. After seeing the large disparity between the haves and have-nots, he resolved that he would one day do something about it.

While he was in Afghanistan, Sonny reached out to the non-governmental organization Carolina For Kibera, which is a participatory development non-profit founded by former Marine Officer Rye Barcott in the Nairobi slum of Kibera. Kibera is one of the most densely populated urban slums in Africa, where the average person subsists on a mere $39 per month. Amenities often taken for granted by Westerners, such as sanitation and garbage collection services, are virtually non-existent. After his active duty period ended in April, Sonny finally had the opportunity to visit Kibera in May, where he initially planned to volunteer with the Tabitha Clinic run by Carolina For Kibera.

However, since Sonny did not have any medical skills, he quickly found his usefulness to be rather marginal at the clinic; so he sought to make himself useful elsewhere. He lived amongst the people, mingling with them and getting to know them. During this time, he found that many of the women and youths in Kibera craft beautiful handmade jewelry from beads, bones, and any other material they can find in an effort to scrape together a living.

Unfortunately, there is no market for these goods in Kibera, since most Kibera residents are mired in abject poverty, and can scarcely afford rent, food, and school fees, let alone a superfluous expense such as jewelry, so these artisans market their goods to the occasional foreign who passes through. Unfortunately, foreigners usually don't come to Kibera . It's perceived to be unsafe, trash and sewage runs throughout the street, and people live in ultra-tight conditions packed like sardines. The only foreigners I saw in Kibera were the ones working for NGOs, and the occasional slum tourism group escorted by armed guards.

In response, over the past few months, Sonny worked with Carolina For Kibera and his classmates at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business to launch a non-profit jewelry store named "With Love From Kibera", designed to economically empower Kibera women and youths by opening access to Western markets by e-commerce. 100% of the proceeds will be returned to Kibera, which will allow Kiberan artisans to purchase food, send their children to high school, pay rent, and in some cases, obtain antiretroviral HIV medication.

Despite what President Reagan suggests, one does not need to be a Marine to make a difference. Margaret Mead once said: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has".

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