He was a homeless youth with no formal education, trying to stay alive amid the poverty and violence of Kibera, Africa’s largest slum in Kenya. She was a Wesleyan University sophomore with a curiosity about the world and an interest in using street theater to help lift up the lives of Kibera’s residents.
This unlikely pair would combine forces to build an internationally recognized grassroots organization that provides education, health care and clean water to many thousands in the Nairobi slum.
The couple – Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner Odede – described that journey Sept. 28 in a conversation at Stanford University School of Medicine.
Their story began in 2007 when Jessica spent a semester abroad in Kenya, choosing to live in Kibera, something few outsiders had ever done. She was undaunted by the grim surroundings in the slum, where an estimated one million people live side-by-side in tin shanties, surrounded by rivulets of garbage and open sewage.
“I thought she was crazy,” Kennedy told the Stanford audience, laughing.
But Jessica said she believed she had to live the experience to really understand it. That is the philosophy that continues today to power their organization, known as Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO).
“It’s about listening and understanding where you are working,” she told a rapt audience at the Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge.
Kennedy said SHOFCO was born out of his anger – of seeing his childhood friends die in violent attacks and his mother and sister treated as “invisible” or as “objects,” simply because they were women. His mother, he said, was an inspiration: despite his family’s extreme deprivation, she always insisted on sharing the meager food they had.
“She would say, ‘You don’t have to be rich or poor to have an impact on someone’s life,’” a message he would take to heart.
Because of his desire to help empower women, one of SHOFCO’s hallmark programs is a school for girls, which provides a free education to 400 local youngsters in pre-K through sixth grade. The goal is help these young girls become leaders in the community and spread a message of hope, said Kennedy, who has been named one of Forbes’ magazine’s “30 under 30” social entrepreneurs.
The pair’s success is embodied in 12-year-old Eunice Akoth, one of six SHOFCO students who traveled to New York in the spring of 2015 for the Women in the World Summit. She proudly stood before an audience at Lincoln Center to read her poem, “My Dream,” to resounding applause.
“Just to see her dreams and her confidence are pretty awe-inspiring,” Jessica told the Stanford crowd.
SHOFCO is based on a holistic approach, for as Kennedy explained, it’s hard to study or work when you aren’t feeling well. The organization operates a free clinic that provides medical care 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.
The couple continue to expand the program, with plans to spread the model to two other slums in Nairobi, Mukuru and Bangladesh.
Previously: Building hope in the slums of Africa, Stanford initiative aims to simultaneously improve education and maternal-child health in South Africa and Using mobile phones to pinpoint better water in a Nairobi slum
Photo by Audrey Hall_Show of Force, courtesy of SHOFCO