Kennedy Odede grew up in the largest urban slum in Africa. The oldest of eight children in a hungry family, he left home at age 10 to search for food on the streets. His education: studying discarded newspapers.
Now a graduate of Wesleyan University, he runs a school for girls in the same slum where he grew up. He described the school—and introduced one of his star students—at the Women in the World Summit in New York City last week. “The future is bright,” he said, after the audience cheered for his sixth-grade charge, Eunice Akoth, who read a rousing poem. She is one of more than 200 students at the school, looking to carve out a new future in the deeply impoverished slum.
Odede’s remarkable journey began a decade ago, with a soccer ball. “I was working doing unskilled labor in a factory, making $1 an hour, and I saved up 20 cents to buy a soccer ball,” he said in an interview during the summit. He gathered children together to play ball in the sprawling slum of his youth, Kibera, in Kenya’s capital of Nairobi, giving the kids something to look forward to in their lives. He became a community organizer, running projects such as a street theater program to educate people about gender-based violence and HIV.
He called his initiative Shining Hope for Communities. “We started it as a movement for social change,” he said. “My mother was a strong woman, and she instilled values such as that you don’t have to be rich to have an impact in someone’s life.”
As he emerged as a community leader, an American student from across the world at Wesleyan University, Jessica Posner, prepared for a semester abroad in Kenya. A mentor who knew of Odede’s work had suggested that Posner meet with him, and so she did. For Odede, their first meeting in 2007 was love at first sight. “I immediately felt comfortable with Jessica and knew from the moment I met her that she was the one,” he said.
Posner, touched by the plight of Odede’s community, did something unusual. She stayed with Odede and his family in their one-room home in the Kibera slum, so she could better understand life there. “It was utterly unheard of for a white woman to live in Kibera. Every day people would come by to check and see if she was still alive,” Odede said. “People could not believe that she would survive.” Kibera is wracked with disease, and clean water is scarce.
Posner, who kept her new digs a secret from her parents, soon became ill. “Jess got malaria at one point and I had to carry her to the hospital. I believed she was going to die then, because everyone I ever knew who got that sick had died,” Odede recalled. “That experience showed me just how important she was to me.”
She pulled through, and the two grew close, discussing hopes and goals for Kibera. “She joined the movement selflessly, and I was inspired by her courage. I shared with Jessica my dream of education and how I want to use it for the betterment of my community,” said Odede, who largely taught himself to read and write, getting his hands on as many books as possible. “We then started involving more people who we knew and were willing to say a word about my work. Jessica took charge, and the rest became magic.”
Odede applied to Wesleyan with Posner’s help, and got a scholarship. In 2008, he began attending the university in Connecticut, studying sociology. “I was surprised by the wealth and the privilege of life in America, but so happy to make so many great friends and have the opportunity to receive a great education,” he said. While in college, he and Posner applied for grants to open a school for girls in the slum. Young girls are especially at risk in Kibera, often falling prey to sexual assault. Funding arrived from the philanthropy group Projects for Peace, and they were on their way.
In 2009, the couple opened a bright blue school in the heart of Kibera. That same year, Posner graduated from Wesleyan with a degree in African-American studies. Odede graduated in 2012 with a sociology degree. At the graduation ceremony, he spoke to the class, describing a tragedy from when he was 18, working in the factory: A friend in the slum had hung himself, “tired of living a life confined to poverty,” he said. That’s when Odede saved up and bought the soccer ball.
After graduation, he wrote in a blog post that his experience “proves that our past cannot determine our future.” He added, “There is a lesson here. Sometimes we need to just do our best in life and not worry about everything working out. I have learned that worry attracts fear, and if you are fearful, you are also too scared to even try.”
The Kibera School for Girls now has 216 students, from kindergarten to the sixth grade, and it will eventually extend to the eighth grade, according to Odede. “It was Kibera’s first free primary school for girls,” he said. “Previously children did have other schooling options—but families often did not send their daughters to school.”
Now 30, Odede is married to Posner and lives in Nairobi. Recently his group opened a second school, in another massive Kenyan slum, Mathare. Posner, who joined Odede onstage at the Women in the World Summit last week, explained the roots of her humanitarian work in a recent interview with Independent Lens. “What kept me in Kibera was the realization of how random and unfair the world can be—how much the country and even the zip code you are born into dictates about your life,” she said. “I saw that I could use my own victory in the birth lottery to facilitate opportunity for so many others.”
The couple’s work was on full display at the summit, when 10-year old Kibera student Akoth brought the audience to its feet, shouting out her poem: “Every mighty king was once a crying baby! Every great tree was once a tiny seed! Every tall building was once in paper! And so I dream my dream!”