Fear Is an Ally: The Story of Kennedy Odede of Kibera, Kenya—Ellen Galinsky
May 31, 2012
On May 27, a 27-year-old graduating senior at Wesleyan University from Kenya stepped onto the podium and delivered the commencement address. Kennedy Odede rallied the graduates, their families and the Wesleyan community by having them repeat with him, "I promise to promote the power of hope."
I have spent much of my career looking at the research on what helps children thrive, what keeps the fire for learning and doing burning brightly within them. Studies that I have reviewed tell us about averages, but not about the individual. So after listening to Kennedy Odede's speech at Wesleyan, I looked back on what he has written about his growing up years to search for clues.
His is an extremely unlikely story. He is the oldest of eight brothers and sisters born and raised in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. He was malnourished and almost died from malaria. As he teetered between life and death, he was left alone for hours as a time. As he writes in his blog:
My mom used leave me alone the whole day while she looked for odd jobs in the slums ...I was always hungry and sick and we had no money to do anything about it.
Our time at Kisumu Ndogo was filled with hot days spent in dark classrooms, our yelling voices often disciplined by teachers with a love for inflicting painful blows to the head with heavy sticks.
We imitated the moves of the heroes we admired. In those days, to be a fighter was to be a hero.
That moment taught me a lesson in my life about fear and loosing. I could have kicked Wycliffe easily -- I was much larger than him, and there's no doubt that my body could lay him flat.
If we perceive fear as loosing and shameful, we let it direct our actions...the fear is our enemy and destroys us.
I remind myself that fear is my ally -- it shows me how to be humble, how to think from other people's perspectives, and how to better face the challenges of everyday life. It teaches me how I want to be, and what I need to do to get there.
I had to leave my family as they could not provide food for me and for my siblings. I had to search on my own, I slept cold on the streets under the stalls and food was difficult to come by. In short, I became a homeless kid whose only schooling was the harsh street life education.
I worked in the factories as an unskilled laborer for many years. It was ten hours for a dollar in horrible conditions.
My dreams to change my community grew from my own personal experiences. The first time I ever had extra money -- 20 cents in 2005 -- I bought a soccer ball and started SHOFCO, one of the first youth groups in Kibera founded and run by slum residents.With no funding, but with faith in people's abilities to change their own lives, I expanded this group, working with thousands of people on AIDS education, female empowerment, microfinance, sanitation, and community health work.
I was born to an underage woman who was denied education and could not prosper. My stepfather mistreated my mother, she was often almost beaten to death but she never gave up on her kids. She taught me how to care about other people and to take action to bring change. My poor mom believed in education.
Kennedy told Jessica of his dream to get an education, and Jessica nudged the Wesleyan admissions office into offering him a full scholarship -- even though he had never gone to formal school before.
When I came to Wesleyan, achieving what I thought impossible, Jessica and I began to work together to make our dream of changing the options available to women a reality.Together, we co-founded a nonprofit, Shining Hope for Communities. We use an innovative, two-step community-driven model to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. We link free schools for girls to holistic community centers that provide residents with the most essential services unavailable elsewhere.