In Dec. 2012, during our semiannual trip to Kenya to visit my parents and sister (who live outside Nairobi), we visited Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), which we'd read about in Nick Kristof's columns (here and here), met its co-founder, Jessica Posner, and saw its many programs to help the people of Kibera, one of Africa's largest slums. Here's a picture of me with (from left to right) my wife, three daughters, sister and Jessica in front of SHOFCO's Kibera School for Girls (I've posted all 29 of my pictures from that day here):
My youngest daughter was so inspired that she asked everyone who came to her bat mitzvah last week to donate to SHOFCO in lieu of a gift to her – and thanks to everyone's generosity, she's raised more than $15,000! (see stayclassy.org/katharineforkibera)
It's a wonderful love story, but Kennedy's story in particular is an inspiring tale of the human spirit and overcoming almost unimaginable adversity. He grew up in Kibera under horrific circumstances: his father (who he later learned isn't his father) beat him and his mother mercilessly, such that at age 10 he had to flee and became a street child, stealing and begging to survive, seeing most of his friends die, being molested by a priest, etc. Then during the post-election violence in late 2007 and early 2008, many of Kennedy's friends were murdered and he narrowly escaped with his life a number of times before being forced to flee to Tanzania (attached is a chapter of the book about this terrifying time). Here's an excerpt:
As we drive back to the city, we see a line of four cars stopped by the roadside. It is almost midnight. Men walk towards us with flashlights. I look through the window. Someone is plucked from the first car. The men are asking for everyone's national identity cards. Reading someone's last name is an easy way to determine the person's tribal affiliation.
"Please don't kill me!" someone is screaming.
They chop off his head. I'm speechless, stunned, Such an atrocity is more than I can process. My breath comes quickly in
Mbugua is closing his eyes as he can't believe what has just happened. I'm trembling with fear.
Death is really following me. Twice now I missed death and yet today it finds me again.
Mbugua can neither move the car forward or backward, as we are surrounded. The second car in front of us is occupied by Kikuyus as I hear them speaking Kikuyu. After showing IDs, the Kikuyus are allowed to move on.
Now the men are on to the next car, a white Subaru. The passengers are not responding in Kikuyu. I hear them being asked to produce their identity cards.
"You guys think we cannot find you. You are killing our people, now we are dealing with you," says one of the young men in charge of stopping the traffic. He is wearing black sunglasses
"One by one outside," he orders.
People are now wailing in the car in front of us. They are being slashed with a machete. Each falls on the ground, lifeless— their screams and pleas for mercy reverberate throughout the night. We can't believe our eyes.
It's our turn now. I'm trembling and crying like a baby, while
Mbugua knows he will be considered a traitor. As a Kikuyu, he too could die for trying to shield me, a Luo. We are no longer friends, no longer people— each a symbol of our tribe, of a struggle that is not even ours.
Something possesses me and I start speaking Kikuyu to man
"The Luos have killed my family, they burned our house, and now we are escaping! They have burned everything, even our IDs!" Tears run down my face.
Mbugua jumps in and says terrible things about the Luo.
The men look at us and feel sorry for us. The man with the sunglasses tells us to go, to be careful on the road.
I can't believe it. I have tricked death once again.
Unable to return to Kenya, Jessica had the improbable and brilliant idea to find a full scholarship for Kennedy to attend college in the U.S. Despite Kennedy having almost no formal education, Wesleyan (which Jessica attended at the time; she graduated in 2009) stepped up and Kennedy graduated from there in 2012 (click here to see his welcome address at the commencement).
Kennedy and Jessica were married in June 2012 and returned to Kenya to run SHOFCO together. For more information about SHOFCO, see: www.shofco.org.
Here's the description of Find Me Unafraid on Amazon:
Find Me Unafraid tells the uncommon love story between two uncommon people whose collaboration sparked a successful movement to transform the lives of vulnerable girls and the urban poor. With a Foreword by Nicholas Kristof.
This is the story of two young people from completely different worlds: Kennedy Odede from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, and Jessica Posner from Denver, Colorado. Kennedy foraged for food, lived on the street, and taught himself to read with old newspapers. When an American volunteer gave him the work of Mandela, Garvey, and King, teenaged Kennedy decided he was going to change his life and his community. He bought a soccer ball and started a youth empowerment group he called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Then in 2007, Wesleyan undergraduate Jessica Posner spent a semester abroad in Kenya working with SHOFCO. Breaking all convention, she decided to live in Kibera with Kennedy, and they fell in love. Their connection persisted, and Jessica helped Kennedy to escape political violence and fulfill his lifelong dream of an education, at Wesleyan University.
The alchemy of their remarkable union has drawn the support of community members and celebrities alike—The Clintons, Mia Farrow, and Nicholas Kristof are among their fans—and their work has changed the lives of many of Kibera's most vulnerable population: its girls. Jess and Kennedy founded Kibera's first tuition-free school for girls, a large, bright blue building, which stands as a bastion of hope in what once felt like a hopeless place. But Jessica and Kennedy are just getting started—they have expanded their model to connect essential services like health care, clean water, and economic empowerment programs. They've opened an identical project in Mathare, Kenya's second largest slum, and intend to expand their remarkably successful program for change.
Ultimately this is a love story about a fight against poverty and hopelessness, the transformation made possible by a true love, and the power of young people to have a deep impact on the world.
If you'd like to meet them, they're on a book tour around the U.S. for the next three months, visiting NYC, Denver, SF, LA, Boston, DC, Pittsburgh, Houston and Chicago – see details below.
Kennedy & Jessica's book tour dates:
San Francisco, October 21-23 Los Angeles, October 27-28 New York, October 31-November 2 Washington DC, November 3-5 Wesleyan (CT), November 6-7 Pittsburg, November 11-12 Wesleyan (CT), November 13-14
Tuesday October 13 -- NYC
Tuesday October 20 -- Denver
Friday October 23 -- SF area
Tuesday November 3 – Washington DC
Monday November 23 – Cambridge, MA
The Harvard Bookstore
1256 Mass Ave.
Cambridge, MA 02138
From Somaliland to Harvard
Abdisamad Adan, a Somali who has siblings who never attended school, defied the odds to end up at Harvard.