Kennedy Odede

by Jane Wallace

"Worry attracts fear, and if you are fearful you are too scared to even try...
you must make fear your ally."Kennedy Odede
Kennedy Odede <br> (
Kennedy Odede

These profound, hopeful insights come from a man whose survival is nearly as unlikely as his internationally recognized success as an activist for the poor in one of the most defeating slums in Africa. Kennedy Odede grew up hard and fast in Kibera, Kenya, a slum of 1.5 million people jammed into a space only the size of Central Park--on the outskirts of Nairobi. The eldest of eight children, Odede's mother was an abused teenager; deserted by his birth father, desperately poor, battered and sexually abused by his stepfather. His ever growing family was starving. Odede often went to sleep with his hungry belly filled only with water. By the time he was eight years old, Obede was put out on the street to forage the garbage for food. His family no longer had even an extra crumb. He was homeless, hungry, and hustling.

Kiberan jobs were tough to come by and paid a meager ten cents an hour. Odede's only education came from an "informal school" in the slum. He taught himself to read. He remembers two books people gave him: one about Nelson Mandela and the other on Martin Luther King. He was deeply moved. Although his mother had no education of her own, Odede's mother had always valued it. She had known her son was smart, but real school in Kenya cost money way out of reach for a family lacking food. Still, even at a young age, Kennedy Odede not only wanted to learn more, he wanted to share whatever he learned with others. At age 10, already pained by the heavy toll the poverty took on those around him, Odede made his first extra money. With two dimes and a dream, he bought a soccer ball and started Shining Hope.

What started as a little boy's idea would improbably grow one day to an outreach center for education, healthcare, food gardens, a network of sustainable toilets, microeconomic help for women with HIV, literacy programs, computer training and hundreds of jobs. But that would take all the help Odede could muster, and by the time he was nearly twenty he was mustering help with street theater in Kibela to both inform and raise money. A student across the world at Wesleyan University in America somehow heard of his efforts, and headed to Kenya to help Odede on her semester abroad. Jennifer Posner shared the 10 x 10 concrete floor with everyone building up Shining Hope. By the time she returned to school, they were in love, and Odede was a hunted man.

Kennedy Odede and Jennifer Posner (
Kennedy Odede and Jennifer Posner (

Political violence racked Kibela after a contested presidential election. On the lam, Odede applied to American colleges and Wesleyan University saw his enormous potential. With Jennifer Posner's help, he got out of Kibela in time to save his own life and get a college degree beyond his wildest dreams, never having gone to real grade school.

By 2012, at his own graduation, Odede demanded that his fellow students repeat "I promise to practice the power of hope". He and Posner married, and now internationally renowned organizations like former president Bill Clinton"s Global Initiative invite Odede to participate. He pinches himself to make sure these things are true. The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff helps raise money for Shining Hope, and donations come in from other American foundations as well. Odede struggles still with the overabundance he sees while in America-- enough food wasted at any of the fancy dinners to feed a hungry block in Kibela-- but he remains very grateful for the generosity he can bring back home.

Perhaps Odede's proudest project to date is his new Kibela School for Girls. Beginning at pre-K through second grade with 64 girls, the school plans to grow ten fold. Most of the students are already on par with American elementary school kids. Sadly, even at such a tender age, 20% of the Kibela school girls had already been raped. There is a dormitory for the girls most at risk in their homes. While he has taken care of his family, Odede still sees his young mother in the girls abused sexually, economically and physically. He would like to send the first Kibela schoolgirls off to college someday, giving them opportunities and protection unheard of when he was a hungry young son. Kennedy Odede may never be able to believe his own good fortune, but by making hope his motto and fear his ally, he has managed to keep living to keep learning how best to share it.

Page created on 9/27/2012 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 1/5/2017 5:06:43 PM

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