north of neutral dialog

October 17, 2011

by anne lueneburger

Kennedy Odede, President, Shining Hope for Communities

Imagine 1.5 million people living in a space the size of Central Park and you begin to understand what living in Kibera, a slum next to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, and the second largest in the world, must feel like. Kibera is a ‘world on fire’, burning with pollution, human feces and starvation. But there are also sparks of hope for a future that is different from today’s reality of poverty, unemployment, crime and corruption.

Movements like ‘Shining Hope for Communities’ (known in Kibera as ‘SHOFCO’) feed the hope that there can be a better tomorrow. Take the example of Sarah Omariba – a five-year-old girl whose father had abandoned the family as his wife lay dying from AIDS. Without Shining Hope for Communities, Sarah likely would have followed the path of many other girls in the slum: abuse, rape or possibly death before she reached her next birthday. Now enrolled in Shining Hope for Communities’ Kibera School for Girls, this once despondent little girl has found a new home. And Sarah is growing stronger as she receives an education which significantly improve her odds of breaking free of the poverty cycle.

Behind Shining Hope for Communities is 27-year-young Kennedy Odede, who spent 23 years of his life in Kibera before coming to the US. I was moved by Odede’s New York Times article Slumdog Tourism’, which makes a convincing argument that, while witnessing poverty first hand by ‘touring’ Kibera may create a heightened awareness of what true deprivation looks like (and occasionally inspire financial donations), it is not the most effective (nor tactful) option to bring about positive lasting change. Odede’s movement leads the way to sustainable positive change by launching an educational platform which is coupled with providing services for the community.

A snap shot

Born and raised in the Kibera slum, Odede recalls that he was nicknamed the “Mayor of Kibera” for his leadership to foster social justice and help alleviate poverty. He became a certified HIV/AIDS counselor, was a community health worker, and ran several slum-wide AIDS education campaigns.

In 2004, at the age of 19, he founded Shining Hope for Communities, one of the largest community-based organizations in Kibera, a nonprofit that works to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. Kennedy Odede serves as Executive Director, while day-to-day operations are managed by Kibera residents.

A human rights activist, Kennedy has received widespread recognition for his work. He is a 2010 Echoing Green Fellow, has won the 2010 Dell Social Innovation Competition, is a senior fellow with Humanity in Action and receives significant endorsement from the Paul Newman Foundation. In 2011 Odede was an invited panelist with the Clinton Global Initiative, sharing the stage with former President Clinton and Hollywood legend Sean Penn (who is the founder and CEO of J/P Haitian Relief Organization).

In addition to his Kibera project responsibilities, Odede is a senior at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where he is majoring in sociology.

Slum boy

“I was born to an underage mother and have never met my biological father, nor do I know who he is,” Odede says. The oldest of eight siblings, he was raised by an abusive stepfather who often beat his mother and who would waste the already scarce family resources on his alcohol addiction.

“At eight I was malnourished and almost died of malaria. My mother had to leave me behind most days to look for odd jobs to feed us. When I turned ten, I was forced to leave my mother and siblings and fend for myself on the Kibera streets. Often I was so hungry I would go through garbage bins to look for any leftover food.”

Odede was a resourceful young boy though, with a contagious, slightly mischievous laugh which breaks through during our interview. There is little doubt that his engaging personality helped him sell peanuts and other items at a higher profit margin than his fellow street kids. And Odede’s mind was racing as to how he could break free of his misery: “My aunt had told me that people who speak English have power. So, whatever money I could spare, I would use to learn English from some self-appointed tutors in the slum.”

When Kennedy Odede was a teenager a tourist handed him the biographies of Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King. “These reads changed my life,” he recalls. “Much like myself these leaders come from very poor backgrounds and I could connect with them.” The books, combined with his desire to bring about social change, inspired Odede to mobilize the Kibera community:  “I started with 20 cents and bought a soccer ball to start a soccer club to both give idle minds something constructive to do, and I used the club as a platform to tackle the everyday issues affecting us.”

His soccer club soon attracted many of Kibera’s boys and girls. When Odede learned that one of his sisters had been raped and was pregnant, he expanded his soccer club to protest against violence: “we would get together and scream very loudly, pretending we were fighting. This got the attention of people around us. We would then give impromptu performances with themes focusing on promoting togetherness and condemning sexual abuse.”

It was at this time that he met a young Wesleyan student from the US, Jessica Posner, who had a profound interest in theatre and decided to spend a year abroad living in Kibera.  She shared a room with four other people and endured the tough conditions of the slum with no water, electricity or sanitation.

Breaking free

Despite all the adversity which Odede faced in the slum – be it abuse, neglect, starvation or lack of education – Odede has successfully deployed strategies to not only survive, but to thrive. His ability to maintain a hopeful outlook on life, and to persevere when it comes to developing and realizing his goals, are all evidence of a certain ‘mental toughness’.

Yet this explains only part of Odede’s remarkable resilience and success. When we look closer, he did not completely pull himself out of difficult conditions ‘by his own bootstraps’. Research shows that social context plays a crucial role when it comes to an individual’s resilience. One of Odede’s strongest ‘social buffers’ throughout has been his mother, a woman who had never received any education herself. Even after his stepfather had forced him to leave home at the age of ten, she ensured that she remained in close contact with her son. She treated him like a partner and shared her values and ideas about life: “She taught me to care about other people and to take action for change. She would keep telling me how leadership without education is like being a puppet of the oppressor.”

And while Odede had launched the soccer club as a means for others to connect and introduce meaning into their lives, the club also served as a support platform for him:”We were about 300 kids, many of us homeless, and we felt like we were a family.” Other community initiatives followed.

In 2007, as a result of political violence in Kenya that put Odede – as a well known community leader – at risk, it was his friend Posner who helped him escape to Tanzania and ultimately secure a space at Wesleyan University in the US (making him the first ever in Kibera to receive a full scholarship to a four-year accredited college).

Seeing this resilience grow as the result of a strong social network makes sense not only in a personal, but also in a broader context. Looking at the corporate world, evidence proves the impact of a strong social support on employee engagement and resilience.  According to Gallup research, we are seven times as likely to thrive at work if we have a ‘best friend’ in the organization (yet, as a side note, only 30 percent of us have this type of support at work).

Building resilience in individuals remains an important and effective developmental task for families, organizations and society – both individually and collectively. The more holistic view of resilience as a mix of individual traits and social setting lifts the full burden of survival off the shoulders of those who are facing adversity and challenges. We can strengthen our individual resilience muscles by changing the way we think and behave, but we can also reach out to others to create a more robust emotional costume for ourselves and those around us.

SHOFCO – building resilient communities

In Kibera the average life expectancy is 30 years (as compared to 60 in the rest of Kenya). One out of five children do not live to see their fifth birthday, and girls are particularly vulnerable. Two thirds of girls trade sex for food from as early as age six, and seven out of ten women will experience violence at some point in their lives. A mere eight percent of women ever receives any schooling and, as a result, most are stuck selling vegetables, food or their bodies on the streets of Kibera.

To address this problem of women being ‘stuck in a rut’, Odede’s Shining Hope for Communities launched the first tuition-free educational platform, The Kibera School for Girls: “We currently have 64 girls currently enrolled, from kindergarten to second grade, and our innovative curriculum has seen some first graders reading at seventh grade levels and above!” he shares proudly.

It’s competitive to be admitted to the school, with around 500 girls competing for 19 kindergarten spaces last year. Dedicated supporters have given Shining Hope for Communities the opportunity to construct a new school building this summer, which will allow them to double their enrollment of new students in January to 40. Admission is not only based on intellectual talent, but also takes a girl’s family situation into consideration. At least 20 percent of the girls have been raped, some so badly that they have chronic internal injuries. “We have helped prosecute rapists and offer boarding for the girls at greatest risk for domestic violence. As we raise more funds from individuals and the corporate world, we can add more spaces and admit more girls to our school.” Odede explains.

The SHOFCO Community Center next to the school also serves as a platform to the general Kibera community, with a library, internet café, and classes in adult literacy and computer skills. The community center is also used for youth group meetings, health and sanitation outreach, girls empowerment programs, champion soccer teams, microfinance groups, as well as for counseling and support groups.

Boosting resilience

The Shining Hope for Communities model works in three ways when it comes to boosting resilience:

First, individuals build knowledge and skills, fostering self-confidence and optimism about a better tomorrow. Second, individuals are embedded in a supportive community which increases their awareness and capacity to understand and deal with the issues in their lives. Third, as Shining Hope for Communities’ movement solicits feedback and active involvement of the community at large, everyone is treated as a potential community activist, which results in an increased overall ‘community resilience’. Individuals are also helping each other via social networking events where a group of champions connect the powerful with the powerless such as health care specialists, teachers or counselors: “I had nothing, but I believed in the power of my people,” Odede emphasizes.

And the results speak for themselves. “Thanks to our sponsors and our community volunteers, we are continuously expanding our services and reach. We have built a bio-latrine center, sanitary toilets throughout Kibera, sustainable ‘vertical gardens’ and a water tower that serves as Kibera’s largest single water point,” Odede is proud to explain.

In their words

There is nothing more powerful than testimonials, so here is one by Helen Mbithe, a parent, community health worker and project participant:

“I am writing this as a woman who was born and lived my entire life in the poverty of the Kibera Slum of Kenya…I was born the first girl in a family of eleven children.  Early in my life I was made to know that girl children are worthless and a burden to the society.  My father terribly abused my mother, and even in my adult years I can still remember those screams.  I tried to stay out of the way, raising my younger brothers and watching as my parents struggled through their poverty to take the boys to a school.  Each day I would watch with longing as my brothers walked to their school, all I wanted was to learn.  Finally, I convinced my father to take me to school.  His commitment only lasted a month.  I wanted to do well, but no one expected anything of me as a woman so it was difficult.  By further bad luck, I was soon with child on my own at age sixteen because I had no food in my house and so I was made to find men to help me to survive.  My baby was a girl and her name is Mwongeli.  From the moment she was born I made a secret promise in my heart.  I kneeled down and I prayed hard and said “Please God, I have one wish in my poor life.  Please, let this child go to school so that she may go ahead of where I have reached in my life, ahead, ahead, ahead.”  I am saying this to you now because by a miracle God has kept his covenant with me.  My daughter, Mwongeli, is now a student at The Kibera School for Girls.  Mwongeli’s life will be very different than mine as the first girl in our family to ever go to school.

The Kibera School for Girls is special in many ways.  It is the only free school for girls that I have even heard of in Kenya.  But there is something more.  At the school there is also a center for the community with needed resources like computer, books, health education sessions, and a vegetable garden open to all community members.   I can say that these offerings have really transformed my life, beyond the impact of providing my daughter with education.  At the community center I am learning to read, and I also got instruction and supplies to start a vegetable garden of my own.  I started to make my own business of selling these vegetables in October, and that ability made my life much better because now I am the one providing my family with the income, which I am so proud about.  I also later got a job as a Community Health Worker at the Johanna Justin-Jinich Community Clinic.  This gave me both an income, as well as knowledge and respect in my community.  This has really changed how my husband behaves towards me, and towards Pius.  My husband was a hard man who abused me much.  But after I started putting food on the table, he did less.  After some time of seeing me learn the gardening and watching Mwongeli move faster in her class work than the neighbor boys, he decided one day to see what was going on at the compound.  Now my husband is learning the computer and got a small job helping to build the toilet structure. My husband now says that good treats come with educating girl children, and because he is the last person I could ever think to say this, I can say that this idea will change lives in many ways in my struggling home community. From my position on the parent board of the Kibera School for Girls, which advises the management of the school and makes our own ideas, I can tell you that when Shining Hope for Communities succeeds, so do we as a community—we want to be as much part of that success as possible.”

What’s next?

Much like Slumdog Millionaire’s hero Jamal, there seems likely to be a happy ending if one were to take measure of Kennedy Odede’s life today. On a personal level he will get married to his long-term partner and “lioness” Jessica Posner once he graduates in June 2012. Then after graduation he aspires to go for his masters degree.

He continues to build awareness and the scope of Shining Hope for Communities, and plans to expand the movement across East Africa. As in the movie, many are there to cheer Odede on – hoping for him to continue to succeed and to spread his life-changing ethos to other communities.

Perhaps one of the main differences between Jamal’s character and Kennedy’s though, is that the current happy ending is not the result of destiny or luck, but due instead to a strong, relentless vision of ‘what could be’. This comes from within Odede and has created a brighter future for him and for an entire community.

We have not seen the sequel to Slumdog Millionaire (if there will ever be one), and do not know whether Jamal would leverage his new riches to create his own game changing movement. But for Odede, who started everything with 20 cents, we have seen that it does not take millions to make an impact. Kennedy Odede’s work and the people around him is what gives his life meaning. In many ways, not much different from what many of us in the developed world long for, he summarizes his ultimate goal in life: “My dream is to be a happy man. Not rich, and not poor!”

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