PROFILE: Kennedy Odede became a street kid at age 10, now he’s fighting poverty in the slums
Kennedy Odede, 37, grew up in a household of extreme poverty and violence. When he was only ten years old, he got tired of his stepfather going out to consume alcohol then coming back to throw a fit, so he ran away from home and became a street boy in Kibera.
Out there, like anybody else, he did whatever he could to survive; he sniffed glue, robbed people using faeces, stole, scoured through dust bins for leftover food, even joined a gang. That kind of life stripped him of his dignity, and he learnt to trust nobody because when you live on the streets people are mean to you, so you develop a deep feeling of resentment for everybody.
Then one day he stole a mango and was almost beaten to death by a mob before a kind stranger walking by stepped in and offered to pay for the fruit, thereby saving his life, and turning upside down his entire perception of people; that perhaps there were still some good ones out there after all. And so, determined to become one of those people, he changed the course of his life.
Kennedy approached a Catholic priest, Father Alberto, who helped him enroll into a local school. Later, he got a job working at a factory earning about Ksh.100 for ten-hour shifts; money he saved up and soon bought a soccer ball for the community. And that is how Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) began, in 2004, with a soccer ball.
Besides football tournaments, SHOFCO started bringing the people of Kibera together to interact by doing such things as helping kids in the community to do their homework. Then, like all these stories deserve to go, Kennedy met and fell in love with a girl; Jessica Posner, an American, who challenged him to embrace his true authentic self and wear it on his sleeves proudly.
Kennedy received a full scholarship to Wesleyan University, becoming one of Kibera’s first to receive an education from an American liberal arts institution. In 2010, he was awarded the Echoing Green Fellowship, which is given to the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs. He was also named to the Forbes ‘30 under 30’ list, and won the 2014 People’s Choice Award for Outstanding Social Entrepreneur as well as the Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Prize the same year.
SHOFCO is now in over 23 slums in the country, impacting over 2 million lives, and in 2018 became the youngest-ever organization to receive the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world’s largest humanitarian prize awarded to non–profits that have made extraordinary contributions to alleviate human suffering.
Remember that American girl? Kennedy married her, and they’re now blessed with three kids, including twins. And because theirs is a story that deserves to be told for generations to come, together they wrote a book titled ‘Find Me Unafraid: Love, Hope, and Loss in an African Slum’ that is now a New York Times best-seller.
Kennedy, a bonafide storyteller who does not like cars too much and instead says he would rather spend his money on gadgets and electronics, spoke to Citizen Digital’s Ian Omondi on Zoom.
Kennedy, take us down memory lane, back to 2004 when SHOFCO began.
When you grow up in a place of hardship like Kibera, two things will happen to you; you will either love yourself too much that you want to be too rich because you grew up with nothing, or you will give up on life and resort to things like gangs because maisha ni ngumu.
The path I chose was that I asked myself how I could be an instrument of change given what I went through. I wanted to have something worthwhile to say if one day somebody asked me ‘Kennedy Odede, you lived, what did you do with your life?’
We started with football, then did theatre, and then we cleaned up the community, and the idea grew and more people joined in. Kibera had a bad reputation then, but we also had talent there, so the thinking was how can we show them out there? That’s how SHOFCO kind of started.
I also didn’t like the way NGOs worked, coming in and showing people how to do things. People who live in these communities know what they want, you just need to come and listen.
There is a kind of perception most people have about Kibera, that it is such a violent and dirty place and whatnot. As someone who grew up in Kibera and spent most of his life there, which is one of those things people say but is not true?
People think Kibera is only composed of Luos. In truth, Kibera is the face of Kenya, everybody is there.
I have lived in the U.S and traveled across Europe and the world, but I will tell you this: there’s no place more amazing than Kibera. The love, the community, the vibe of homeliness and people caring about you that you feel there
When I was in the U.S and sometimes I lacked basic things like salt and could not borrow it from my neighbours there, that was when I missed Kibera. These are things that we take for granted. People in Kibera may not have much but they are wealthy at heart. And it is a place full of talent, what is lacking there is opportunity.
And how do you think these opportunities can be created?
What is happening in South Africa now, I predicted it six years ago when I was there. I saw big walls; the rich were too rich, and the poor had been forgotten on the other side. It is now erupting, what is happening in South Africa is not even about Jacob Zuma anymore, it’s about poverty. And if we’re not careful Kenya will follow suit.
We have to start listening, and start taking time to appreciate, for instance, where even our nannies come from. Go visit their homes. Because most of these people who work in our houses, even security guards, live in either Kibera or Mathare.
Go there and see that these are just normal people who are only going through hardships. That will change perception. For Kenya to grow, we have to start thinking that the problem of Kibera or Mathare is also a problem for that person living in Karen.
Granted, you have done and continue to do some great work in Kibera with SHOFCO, but do you at times ever feel like you would be in a position to do so much more if you were holding an elective seat?
In my heart, I believe in communities that are enlightened and empowered. It really doesn’t matter who becomes the MCA, MP or even President, because when you’re enlightened then you will put these people accountable.
I’m not just doing NGO work, I’m making people see the truth, so that they can start asking questions. I’ve seen great men and women go to Parliament and get swallowed in by the system and become greedy. What we must do is just organize the people so that they can make the right choices.
Of course (running for an elective seat) is something I have thought of, but if you look at us now we’re impacting almost ten counties. If I’m just an MP in one area like Kibera or Mathare, how would that help?
I believe that if communities are really empowered, neighbour by neighbour, and they know what they want, they will push a little bit. Otherwise, we’ll just have leaders who are not doing anything because people are not empowered so they’re just being manipulated.
You were, at some point, a street kid, how would you describe that period of your life?
Yes, and I actually wrote a book about it, remind me to give you a copy, Ian.
What happened in the streets was an awakening for me. There was a feeling of hopelessness, knowing that nobody is there for you, being in a situation of violence and eating from the garbage, knowing that the only way to run from your pain is glue.
I remember we used to carry faeces and, if you didn’t give us money, then we’d throw it on you. Street kids have that mindset of ‘why are you dressing so nicely and I’m suffering here?’ you know.
The streets also gave me that value of why people do what they do, so I don’t really judge, and also that God really does take care of His people. Because, living in the streets means there is no medical insurance for you and you have no doctor but yet you very rarely even get sick anyway.
What was going through your mind that first time you stepped onto a plane bound for the U.S, leaving behind Kibera and that life?
Let me give you a short story:
I started SHOFCO, then I met a Jewish-American woman called Jessica who came here on an exchange program. She was very good in theatre and we kind of liked each other. Jessica was the first woman to ever take me to Java, we became close and worked together a lot. She connected me to America.
My life changed on air while in the flight to the U.S. Throughout my life, before then, I did not get treated with dignity, people always treated me with madharau. But, on the plane, this young lady came up to me and said, ‘Sir, how can I serve you? We have red and white wine.’ I was so mind-blown and confused, just by the mere fact that she called me ‘Sir’, that I said I will have both red and white wine even though I didn’t know what they were. *Laughs*
The U.S was the first place I used a shower, and one with warm water at that. I would spend so much time in the shower that other students started thinking I was fainting in there so they would often come knocking on the door asking, ‘Kennedy, are you okay?’ and I would shout, ‘Yes, I’m just enjoying this warm water.’
The U.S is where I got to meet people who believed in me, one of them is President Bill Clinton who has been an amazing supporter of my work. His team sent me an email saying they’d heard about somebody from Kibera who was in the U.S and they wanted me to go talk to Hollywood actor Sean Penn in San Diego. But I didn’t respond because I thought it was a Nigerian scam. I mean, how could Bill Clinton’s people write to me, a mere Kennedy Odede? So I ignored the email. Three times. Then they called the university and asked for me and I was summoned.
My life changed in the U.S, back home nobody cared about me because I was from Kibera. I got to be known from the U.S, my first writing was for the New York Times, and people like Beyonce and Madonna gave money to my organization because they believed in what I was doing.
You have won all these great global awards and been featured on all these great global media platforms, but a lot of people still don’t know you well here in Kenya. Do you feel like you haven’t really been accepted into your home as you have outside there? Are you more famous in the U.S than in Kenya?
Yes, and let me tell you a funny story about that: This one time I was walking on the streets of New York, it was during the winter, and then all of a sudden somebody started shouting ‘Kennedy! Kennedy! Kennedy!’ When I turned to look, guess who it was? Chelsea Clinton.
I feel like poverty messed with my confidence, and the feeling that I was not accepted in Kenya was in the mindset. But the moment I relaxed and decided to just work for the course I believe in, and that if Kenya wants to join then they can, and if not it’s still fine, that’s when I saw a change. Right now, I feel like many people in Kenya know SHOFCO. The only that is sad about it was that it had to come from the West.
You’re a New York Times best-selling author, and the foreword of your book was written by Nicholas Kristoff, a Pulitzer prize winner. How did that come about?
I met Nicholas in the U.S, he invited me to the New York Times offices and there was a celebrity in the room…this guy who acted in the film about Somali pirates…*light bulb*…Tom Hanks!
I was seated in the corner with my wine glass, bored, when this guy walked to me and introduced himself as Tom and I as Kennedy. I didn’t know who he was, so I asked him, ‘what do you do, Tom?’ He said, ‘I’m in the entertainment industry. Where are you from Kennedy?’ I said ‘I’m from Kenya’ and we kept talking for about 45 minutes before I got tired and told him, ‘Tom, nice to meet you, let me go and see Nicholas now.’
Nicholas asked me, ‘Kennedy, do you know who you were talking to?’ I said, ‘Yeah, he’s a good guy, his name is Tom.’ Then Nick said, ‘That’s Tom Hanks’ and I was like ‘Who’s that?’ and he just said, ‘Ask Jessica.’ When I told Jessica about it, she couldn’t believe I’d just met Tom Hanks.
I think it’s good to just be yourself, things will always come your way. So Nick has been a good friend to us and a good supporter. The book is being turned into a movie very soon.
You seem to have met a lot of Hollywood celebrities, who are some of the nicest ones you have broken bread with?
I love Beyonce. In person, she’s a little bit shy and very down to earth. The story is that I first met the CEO of Gucci at an event organized by Bill Clinton. He gave me his card and I was like, ‘Oh, so you’re from Gusii?’ He started laughing and told me, ‘Say it again’ and I said ‘Gusii.’ Later, when I told my wife I met the CEO of Gusii, Jessica laughed and said ‘It’s called Gucci, pronounced as Goo-Chee, not Gusii.’ And that’s how the CEO of Gucci became my friend.
Afterwards, he was hosting an event and he invited me and said he wanted me to meet somebody, but that I must come with my wife and wear a nice suit. When I went, the surprise person that I was supposed to meet was Beyonce.
I also love Madonna. She’s somebody who will just call regularly and check what is happening, I have even met her children, and she’s become somebody I really care about, not just because she supports my work every year.
The Bill Clinton family are people that I admire so much, they have been there for me.
Mohammed Ali was also interesting. I’ve also met 50 Cent, and he came with that gangster attitude of ‘Yo man, wassup?’ He’s been to Kibera and he loved it. He’s a funny man.
In your line of work, I would imagine that you step on a lot of toes, because you make some powerful people look bad. I read somewhere that one time an envelope containing bullets was sent to your house. How do you continue to do what you do and does it scare you?
*Laughs* You have really done your research, Ian.
Yes, that happened, and it scared my wife, but I think it’s really changing. People didn’t understand what I was trying to do at the time. I believe in the grassroots, I’m not into politics. At that time people believed I was running for political office, but I wasn’t, I was actually trying to complement the government and see how we could work together and ensure that the right things were done.
I still have to be careful, because poverty is politics. When you work with poor people and you’re trying to change their thinking, the people who want them to stay like that will not be happy with you.
Tell us a bit about the family.
I have twins, a boy and a girl, three years old. I named the boy Oscar Garvey, after one of my icons, Marcus Garvey, and the girl is called Maridad. I also have a one-and-a-half-year-old boy called Zayn. We’re a unique couple in that we have three children all under the age of three, so you can imagine how full our hands are. And my wife is now Luo-Kenyan-Jewish-American.
Have you taught her some Luo?
Of course, she knows quite a bit.
Is there something that she does not like about you?
Jessica likes order, she always wants her things done a certain kind of way. I, on the other hand, am spontaneous and random about things. I’m one of those people who will meet you and say ‘we should catch up next week’ but then we won’t. Unless it’s put in my diary, I won’t do it, my team knows this now.
So that sometimes gets to her but she understands me now, we complement each other that way.