This story, written by our friend Linda Studer, is about a remarkable young man, Kennedy Odede, born among the poorest of the poor who overcame poverty, prejudice, and ignorance to enrich the community he loves. Here is a young man, born in the slums of Kibera who loved his family, friends and community so much he vowed at an early age to get an education so he could help others live in a safe and clean environment.
But, how could a young boy from the slums of Africa get a good education? This is where the loving hand of God enters the picture. A chance meeting of a young man on a church trip and a pen pal changed not only Kennedy’s life but also the lives of those so far away touched by his energy, enthusiasm, dedication, and determination.
Kennedy’s story is a love story in the truest sense of the word. It is everything from agape love to romantic love. Like his namesake, Kennedy is a remarkable young man destined for greatness.
The Pen Pal
Back in the late ’90’s, my daughter’s friend, Alex, went to Nairobi with some other young people affiliated with a Catholic Church organization in order to help out with the youth in the area and to sort of hang out with them, talk to them, try to give them a little hope. While there, he briefly met a young boy named Kennedy Odede. Alex was impressed with Kennedy’s friendliness, and he showed him my daughter, Maren’s, picture and asked if he would like to have her address so they could be pen pals. Of course Kennedy accepted and one day Maren received a letter in the mail from Nairobi, Kenya. Another world!
As we read this letter from this boy, we started forming a picture of another way of life, almost a parallel world, where the basics of our everyday lives are almost nonexistent. Living in a tiny little shanty made of paper, mud and bits of metal, foil, anything lying around they could find? Not having running water? To go to the bathroom you use a plastic bag and fling it out your door into the street?
Men and fathers have no work so they hang out drinking “battery acid” type alcohol and return home to beat their families? The life of girls is so bad that rape is very common in girls as young as four and they have almost no prospects of making a future for themselves. The life described in this letter sounded so dismal, so void of any hope; yet the young man writing this letter was anything but hopeless. Kennedy Odede was not about to lie down and take this, not by a long shot! He was not going to accept this as an inevitable way of life, and he was going to do everything possible to help the young people around him to see that their fate did not have to be sealed by this status quo; he was determined that they could all make other choices — other paths to follow in life.
A Fight for a Better Life
Kennedy had to take to the streets as a young boy in order to try to help feed his siblings. He would go to school when he and his mom could scrape together the tuition, and he would also work odd jobs to make a little money. At one time he had 25 cents in his pocket so he decided to buy a soccer ball. He brought together the youth in the Kibera slum, where he lived, and they began hanging out and playing soccer. A way better alternative than crime on the streets.
Over time, Kennedy not only worked with these kids but he organized women in his community and helped them to get computer training and to start learning how to make goods to sell in the markets. Through this process he ended up founding SHOFCO (Shining Hope for Communities). SHOFCO is a strong, growing, vibrant organization today, you can read about it on their website. Today they operate the Kibera School for Girls, founded by Kennedy and his now wife Jessica Posner, a health clinic, a sustainable food garden and clean water to sell to the Kibera community. This is a huge deal, as clean water has always been a major problem.
But as we read his letter, I became interested in Kennedy, just fascinated by this kid who, although he lives in the most horrid conditions, shows a spirit, an optimism almost unparalleled in people I see every day in our land of plenty. I began to write to Kennedy too, and eventually he was able to obtain an email account and we started emailing back and forth. My husband and I decided to assist him in getting through high school and after that, obtaining a degree in computer training. It was still very difficult for Kennedy to find work; there is much prejudice against people from the slum, and unfortunately, those in a position to hire also have these prejudices. However, Kennedy never, ever gave up. He would sometimes find a small job so that he could make a little money. He also continued to work very hard as a community activist. He would help write plays and put on skits about life and making good choices. Kennedy poured himself into working for his community – a community he loved.
So very much happened during these years, I can only give you a brief accounting of what I know and can remember. But one thing I can tell you for certain: the period after he finished school, when he had so much trouble finding work, I felt so helpless sitting over here in the U.S., not being able to do anything for him. I think that was one of the worst periods in my life; I felt absolutely heartsick because I could not do anything helpful.
By the Grace of God
Well, by the grace of God, that heartsick feeling did not last forever – a young woman named Jessica Posner from Wesleyan University in Connecticut traveled to Nairobi one summer for work connected to her college. She and Kennedy met up – and the rest is history! One day I received an email from Kennedy saying, “Mom, I have some very big news for you, I will get back to you very soon and tell you what it is.” I waited for a few days, not knowing what to expect, and then came the email: Mom, I’m in love!!! 🙂
He and Jessica fell in love and although she had to return to her home in Denver and then on back to Wesleyan, Jessica wasted no time in working hard to get him an opportunity to apply for admission to Wesleyan. The college finally did offer to read his application and consider him for admission. Now in the meantime, when Kennedy was preparing to write his essays to submit to Wesleyan, Kenya had its presidential election. Presidential elections in Kenya often are followed by tribal violence, and this election was no exception. We all saw on the news how killings were taking place and we all saw pictures of the bodies piled up in makeshift morgues. And during all this, Kennedy had to flee to a neighboring country for a few weeks, because some thugs were after him! He was not safe in his own home so he had to lay low for a while before returning to Kenya. Then he had to ask Wesleyan for an extension so he could finish up his essays! Of course he was granted the extension, and was ultimately given a full scholarship to the school!
A miracle, in my books. How in the world did this come to be? How did the fates, or God, or karma, put these two people from two different worlds together? And what a power team they became! Together they founded the Kibera School for Girls. Jessica appeared on VH1’s Do Something Awards and won $100,000 for the school. They have won competitions from the Newman Foundation and many other foundations that award money to innovative enterprises that are doing great things in the world. Kennedy has appeared with President Bill Clinton at his Clinton Global Initiative.
Love Conquers All
This past June, our family attended Kennedy and Jessica’s wedding in Denver. It was absolutely wonderful, a beautiful blending of Kenyan and Jewish traditions. In May, Vogue magazine did a four-page article about Jessica and Kennedy’s love story. I have such affection for them and for all the work they have done. These two people are very unique – you just don’t run into young people like that every day – and again, I must ask, how in the world did they find each other? How did it all come to be? But find each other they did. And I must add that I am to this day astonished at the spirit of Kennedy Odede. He has a genuinely sweet soul. I continue to be amazed at how this young boy overcame and never, ever lost his optimism, his love of life in spite of the daunting obstacles.
There is even so much more to his story. I remember how, when he needed to obtain his visa to come to the U.S., he requested a meeting with Kenya’s prime minister and actually sat down and talked to him about what he wanted to accomplish while at Wesleyan so he could return and help his people, and the prime minister made sure he got his visa! And I will always be mindful of a human spirit that soared when it should have been beaten down, and of a soul so determined to rise and prevail – and I will always – always – keep in my heart this unique and wonderful sprit and soul named Kennedy Odede.
For more about this amazing young man please click on the links below: