It was exactly a year ago, January 2014, when I first came to know of Kennedy Odede, a fellow Kenyan like myself who was causing ripples across the world and for all the right reasons. Unfortunately, it wasn’t through local channels that I had come to know of him but through a gripping piece that he had written for the New York Times which had highlighted on the intrinsic link between terrorism and urban poverty. He had laid the facts bare, the article was true and indeed uncomfortable. Many a times we do want to judge and furtively give our opinionated views on this perdition known as terrorism without wanting to constructively discuss or tackle its root causes and exacerbating agents. To read more on the article kindly see it here.
Nonetheless, I am not writing to judge but to tell a story.
At four years of age, young Kennedy Odede had grown to know and understand that he was poor, that his family was poor, extended family as well as his late family. He was old enough to absorb the environment surrounding him and at six years when of age to walk around, he took to the streets to sell peanuts. Maybe it was by his own volition I thought to begin with, but no, it was because of the fact that he needed to make some extra money for the family. His mother worked odd jobs to make ends meet for him and his siblings.
Growing up in Kibera slums however, the city streets and lights offered an added sense of adventure and excitement to young Kennedy. This was not to last and growing resentment took over. As he sold his peanuts to people in cars or to walking pedestrians, Kennedy began to realize the glaring disparity between his home in Kibera and the lifestyles of these people. The big cars, the clean clothes, the good shoes, it was all too painful. “I hate rich people,” the little boy said amidst throwing whatever he had with him at the cars. On several occasions, feeling jaded and exhausted from the day’s work, Kennedy headed home only to find the house fully occupied by neighbours’ kids who had come to partake of their already small portioned meals. “Mum, these neighbours have to go, I am hungry, we are all hungry, how do we even begin to share,” young Kennedy ranted in between short breaths. But his mum was deaf to this and with each passing day she reminded him that it was only through sharing, through humanity that one keeps hope alive.
At the tender age of ten, Kennedy was a homeless boy roaming the streets of Nairobi. The pain had become too much to bear and so he decided to run away from home. At the age of fifteen, ‘luck’ befell him and he got a job at a factory where he made Ksh 100 ($ 1. 2) a day after 10 hours of labour. It was also then that he had begun to read on Martin Luther King Jr. “Each day I cried and cried. This could not be life. Was I born to live this way? Is poverty bound to flow through my veins till I die? Is it genetic? My grand dad was a poor fisherman, his father too…this just cannot be life.”
Fast forward to 2015 and I am seated across this gentleman known as Kennedy. He tells me about the countless number of friends that he lost along this journey called life. The pain is palpable and I could see it through his eyes as he spoke fondly of them. Some committed suicide, while others were killed by the police. “It was crazy, I was crazy. I had lost all hope, I was violent. “
“It was on one of these long days after working at the factory that I began to question myself and question God. Flooded with tears, I told him that he could not bring me into this world to know such hard living. Hard pressed against the wall I could only bounce back. So I decided to buy a football from that day’s earning and called my friends together. I told them that there had to be more to life. Some thought I was mad but this football brought us together. I told them that we had to transform the society by ourselves,” Kennedy narrates. His words ring true and remind me of Victor Frankl’s words in his revolutionary book, ‘Man’s search for meaning’ where he writes of his experiences in the Nazi gas camps. He states that man when questioning his existence should not ask what he expects from life but what life expects from him.
Today Kennedy is a success story, he is one of the leading social entrepreneurs in the world and has transformed Kibera and Mathare through the organization that he started back then at fifteen years of age, ‘Shining Hope for Communities.’ A community based and owned organization that is anchored on providing quality education, health care, water and sanitation and economic empowerment to society. Today the organization is serving over 70,000 people.
What was most inspiring to see was the love for wellness of society amongst the staff members and community. During the post election violence that rocked Kenya in 2007-8, the community armed with pangas and machetes stood watch over the organization’s building and projects to protect them from vandalism. “It is there work, they take so much pride in it,” Kennedy says amidst a big smile across his face.
One particular individual who struck me on one of my visits to Shofco (Shining Hope for Communities) is Paul (name changed) who focuses on assisting families that are dealing with sexual and gender based violence. His story is both heart-wrenching and inspiring at the same time. Paul was a cab driver who worked long hours especially during the night shift when his four year old daughter was raped by a neighbour. It was then that he decided to sensitize and empower the community on these issues and joined Shofco.
This brings me to my kind appeal to you; we do not need to know pain nor humble beginnings to change the world. It’s okay to just be and to give of our gifts and time to better society. Our founding fathers fought for liberation, it is now our time to propel transformation. It no longer is about politics as we know it where several individuals suffer delusions of grandeur, but about the grassroots and the roles that we are playing there. I would love to hear more on your amazing stories as well as share them. In a world that is facing the ubiquity of suffering with heartbreaking news sprawled across our screens on a daily basis; it’s all too easy to fall into the bottomless pit of hopelessness. We do have the ability to transcend this predicament and influence in a different way, African youth tell me your story via this email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nyaguthii Wangui Maina is a Pan African enthusiast and activist whose main passion is the youth and girl’s and women’s empowerment; she is a blogger who believes in telling the African story from an African perspective. Nyaguthii volunteers as a weekly columnist of YouthHub Africa; a cyber-community for young Africans involved in social change. She is also keenly interested in governance, democracy and policy issues and blogs on the African Union Commission’s DGTrends platform. In Kenya, Nyaguthii is an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and works with the Permanent Mission of Kenya to the UN offices in Nairobi. She tweets @nm_wangui and blogs here
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