In 2007, Wesleyan University student Jessica Posner took a semester abroad to volunteer with a nonprofit in Kibera, Kenya -- Africa’s largest slum -- and decided to live there to continue her work. On her first day there, she met Kennedy Odede, a Kibera native who had survived a childhood of physical abuse, homelessness and petty thievery in which he scrounged garbage cans for food and sniffed petroleum to stave off hunger and escape a dismal existence. He’d outlived his four best friends, who died of disease and violence before the age of 13.
I had followed the couple’s story with great interest, as a Wesleyan graduate myself and someone who had spent some time in Kibera, working on a project on AIDS in Africa with my friend and collaborator, photographer Karen Ande. For the uninitiated, Kibera can be a daunting place. Home to an estimated one million souls, it’s a maze of tin shanties, punctuated by rocky, sewage-ridden alleyways where residents bathe and wash their clothes and children play. I wondered why a college student like Jessica – a Jewish girl from Colorado – would choose to live there and how she came to know and love Kennedy, who ultimately would rise beyond his circumstances to graduate from Wesleyan in 2012.
On September 28, the couple will visit Stanford to relate their remarkable story, recounted in their 2015 New York Times best-seller, Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum. Their talk at the medical school is free and open to the public, and I, for one, can’t wait to be there.
Before Jessica’s arrival in Kenya, Kennedy had started a small neighborhood group to counter the violence, crime, poor sanitation and other problems that plagued the neighborhood. He began with a soccer ball and about 20 cents, rallying people around the new organization, which they called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Later he obtained a small grant from an American nonprofit to open an office on a former garbage heap.
He and Jessica shared a dream of building a school for girls, and together they were able to obtain outside help to realize a project that now offers a free education to some 400 local youngsters. Gradually their work became recognized and with additional funding they were able to build a community clinic providing free services to 100,000 local residents, as well as a community water system, public toilets, programs to prevent violence against women and entrepreneurial programs that reach 75,000 people. They have expanded the program to Mathare, another Nairobi slum, and hope to continue to spread the model to other communities.
Previously: Stanford med student chronicles his experience working in rural Kenya and Using mobile phones to pinpoint better water in a Nairobi slum
Photo of Jessica Posner and Kennedy Odede courtesy of Focusing Philanthropy