on October 2015
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
his 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.
I had first heard of SHOFCO in the wonderful book A Path Appears. It is also featured in the documentary made from that book. Since reading that, I’ve been contributing monthly to the program.
I had heard that they had written their own book. I’m glad that I decided to read it even though I was aware of the basic premise of their story. This book goes much deeper into Kennedy’s childhood than the previous book did. It is a brutally honest book. Content warnings for rape, abuse, genocide.
Kennedy experienced every kind of abuse that a child could. The book goes into detail about his life with an abusive step-father. He left home at a young age to escape him and lived with a group of homeless kids who lived through crime. He tried to get out by appealing to the church only to be sexually abused there. It is amazing that he grew up to try to do something positive for the community. He wanted something besides crime in people’s lives. It all started with a 20 cent soccer ball and organized soccer games. That led to a theater group that tried to teach people how to live better lives. That’s how he met Jessica. She was a rich, white American college student who wanted to help with the theater. She does just about everything that you’d expect an American to do. She’s pushy. She makes many faux pas. She doesn’t understand the community. But eventually she learned to fit in and learned to love Kibera and Kennedy.
She went back to college and Kennedy was forced to flee Kenya because of violence. Jessica was able to get him into college in the U.S. for his own safety. The book does a good job detailing how difficult it was for him to move back and forth from Ohio to Kenya and function in both places.
It was the epidemic of child rapes around him that led him to decide to open a school for girls to prove that they are valuable. The school is the center of a whole-life program in Kibera. There is clean water provided and meals. There are safe houses if the girls are being sexually or physically abused at home.
This is an important story and an even more important program to know about. It shows how grass roots community organizing in places in need can help lift up everyone involved.