Anger doesn’t discriminate: These days it’s being expressed by female college students outraged at the rape and sexual harassment they face; Muslims who are targets of Islamaphobia; Europeans frustrated by the instability the refugee crisis is creating in their countries; and even white men resentful of any threat to their dominance. We are living in a changing world, witnessing a new rise of right wing parties and dictators in many parts of the world who find fertile ground wherever anger festers. And yet, we rarely talk about the essence of anger. Why is it rising, what are people afraid of, how do they express anger, and how to deal with it in a constructive way?
Kennedy Odede, a young man who grew up in the slums of Kenya, gave me new insight into the paradoxical emotion — one that can be a force for good or ill. Anger, Odede explains, “comes from feeling rejected, being invisible and feeling useless. These are the main drives for anger.” When analyzed in this way, anger begins to make sense. Female college students feel invisible, given that universities have yet to take their grievances about campus rape seriously. Muslims feel rejected in America. Decent white men may feel unfairly vilified as they are lumped together with racists or sexists.
Odede’s book, Find Me Unafraid, written with his wife, Jessica Posner, describes the depth of poverty and the level of rejection he faced as a child born out of wedlock, and the violence he endured at the hands of those who were supposed to give him love and protection. My level of anger rose as I read and absorbed the injustices he faced in his life. And yet, Odede exudes positive energy: infectious laughter, sparkling eyes, an easy comfort as he talks in an upscale restaurant in New York City. I ask him how he deals with his anger.
“When you are really angry, it has to come out,” Odede explains as he describes how he escaped his home at the age of 10, joined a street gang, and got into drugs. “Growing up in poverty and filling your belly with solid food is a matter of luck”, he tells me. “I remember asking God how long was I supposed to endure this suffering?” That suffering was relentless, but a turning point came for Odede when a friend of his was shot by the local police and a second friend hanged himself a day after.
“I knew enough was enough when two of my friends died in the same week”, Odede explains. “It was personal at this point. I needed to fight to survive. But I couldn’t fight the government, nor the local gangster. I couldn’t fight in the street either. So I bought a soccer ball. I knew the choice at that time was either to kill our community or to build it. I said let’s fight with our minds instead. We may not be able to fight the police [known for their brutality in the slums of Kenya], but we can transfer our behavior and build our community. That’s when I turned the anger into soccer and eventually that turned into hope.”
Without going to school, or learning about gender issues or women’s rights, Odede started by focusing on women and girls, knowing that investing in them can yield the greatest impact on his community. He called his community group Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO).
Odede met Jessica Posner, a young American student from Wesleyan University who decided to spend a summer in the slums of Kenya — a tough place even for committed humanitarian workers. Eventually Jessica partnered with Odede not only in love but also in expanding his community work. His investment in fighting anger with a soccer ball started with 20 cents. Today Odede and Posner have impacted more than 93,000 people, mostly women and girls in the Kabera and Mathare slums of Kenya. And earlier this year, Odede received an honorary doctorate from the University of Hartford, having earned his undergraduate degree at Wesleyan a few years ago.
Only when anger is expressed honestly and authentically can we truly address the issues that perpetuate it. If Odede can turn seemingly insurmountable suffering and justifiable rage into a productive fight to build, then so can college women, American Muslims, resentful white men, and all the rest of us.
Watch Kennedy Odede deliver the welcome address at his graduation from Wesleyan University in 2012:
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.