His life was saved by kindness

10 Sep 2018

As a homeless kid in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya, Kennedy Odede stole a mango. A mob began beating him. A kindhearted middle-age man saw what was happening and paid for the mango. Later on, a kind priest helped Odede go to a local school.

He went on to graduate from Wesleyan University and found a nonprofit called Shining Hope for Communities in 2004, based in Kibera. SHOFCO, as it’s known, started out offering free education to girls and has expanded to provide health services and water to residents.

Recently, Kennedy Odede’s charity was awarded $ 2 million by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which gives out an annual humanitarian prize. SHOFCO was cited for “providing critical services for all, community advocacy platforms and education and leadership.”

Another thing that’s new with Odede’s group is a clean-water project. Since 2016, they’ve dug two wells and set up an aerial network of pipes — kind of like Roman aqueducts — to deliver filtered, chlorinated water to kiosks in Kibera to sell at a low price.

Odede and his wife, Jessica Posner, are the parents of a boy named Oscar Garvey, born on August 7.

A baby and $ 2million. You must be happy.

Odede: Oh, yes. We are very excited!

SHOFCO was your first baby. How is it doing?

Odede: We have 520 girls in the Kibera School for Girls and the Mathare School for Girls. We have a health care program with seven clinics and served over 200,000 patients in 2017. The first lady of Kenya gave SHOFCO a mobile clinic.

The imperative of establishing a school for girls in Kenya is quite evident. But what about boys?

Odede: That’s a good point. Now in my house we have a boy. I cannot let boys down. We have boys’ clubs at SHOFCO, we teach boys to be good men. I believe you cannot just empower women. Women need to have men who are strong and respectful. To leave boys out is not going to work well.

What does the money mean to you?

Odede: Two things. One, the recognition makes me so happy. We are not an international organization. We are grassroots, founded by a street boy, a slum boy. Grassroots organizations are the future. The way to go for national development is not to forget grassroots organizations. The only way to transform any community has to be from the grassroots level.

What’s the second thing the money means?

Odede: This money we are going to use as an endowment. With this endowment we are here to stay. SHOFCO is not going to end with Kennedy.

You are funded by grants and donations.

Odede: Yes, we are working on that.

When you were young, you had a hard life.

Odede: Yes, rather. I worked at a factory. It was a manual job, carrying and unloading gas cylinders. Every evening you have to buy milk to clean your chest because it was burning from carrying the cylinders.

And your childhood wasn’t happy, as well,

Odede: I could have been one of the poor kids killed by mob justice. I was invisible, seen as useless, a poor person always arrested by the police.

You have to remember where you come from. Where you are headed is important but where you come from is important. My mother told me not to let my head swell, because if my head swells it’s going to bust. And even now that we’ve won this big award and in my heart I’m so proud and happy, I’m trying to be careful not to let my head bust.

There’s such a great event in your family – your baby. His middle name “Garvey” is in honor of the early 20th century black leader Marcus Garvey.

Odede: I used to think of this man when I was lonely, when I was down. Garvey was with the people, with the grassroots, one of the greatest organizers. So Garvey touched me in a special way. He was self-taught, he loved reading, Garvey gave me that idea that you can change your life by education, by searching for knowledge without having a teacher. If you are really lucky to go to school, thank God, but if you’re from a slum or a village, you can still fall in love with books.

Garvey also started businesses for the poor. He wanted to give economic power to the less fortunate. When I read about Garvey, I was like, wow I love this man!

Is it a heavy burden for a child to carry such a famous name?

Odede: I want my son to be his own man. His name is also part of my wife’s Jewish tradition of picking the first letter of the name of somebody you admire. Jessica’s aunt passed away and her name started with “G.” I hope my son will like his name.

And what about the name Oscar?

I was in L.A. and dreamed I was riding a bike and we had a baby boy called Oscar. It’s a fine name, too, isn’t it?


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