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Graduation 2012

I am writing this blog as a university degree holder, with honors to boot! This is a significant milestone that proves nothing will ever hold us back if we are determined enough. It also proves that our past cannot determine our future. Honestly, four years ago I couldn’t believe that one day I would graduate from a prestigious University. 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.  I was not thinking of my own growth, or what would happen in my life— I was thinking about how I could serve my community.  One of my respected role models Marcus Garvey once said with fear you are already defeated without trying.
My readers, let’s no waste our time  worrying too much. Life is too short to worry. My mom always tells me that I should enjoy life to the fullest when I put humanity in my heart, she insists to live is luck and to die is a guarantee.  She asked me this question: how would we like to be remembered when we are no longer alive? I respect my mom for installing those kinds of value into me.

I believe everyone deserves a better life. When I meet children in Kibera, in their eyes I see the future leaders of Kenya. The great leaders often come from humble background. They are made unique by the struggles they have faced, and they know themselves how most of the population lives.

I look forward to keep posting on this blog as I now have much more time- but being a husband is another responsibility. Anyway I will try to navigate through and post once in a while. Keep the fire burning and focus on your dream, believe me it’s possible.

Peace!
K

Never Say Die: Another World is Possible

Today, this blog is dedicated to the young struggling masses in all corners of the world. I want to share an experience from a few days ago.

As a senior at Wesleyan University, there is a tradition called “senior cocktails.”  “Cocktails” is a series of events put together for the senior class to party together before graduation.

The cocktails event from a few nights ago had a theme attached to it, “Rock and Roll.”  For this event, everyone is supposed to dress up, wearing a costume that reflects any kind of “rock and roll” from the Beatles to Bob Marley.  There was only one problem: I had nothing to wear.  My friend Nathan and I decided to go to Good Will to get an outfit for the night.  As we drove, I sat in the car thinking how strange my life has become, how disconnected from the real world that I used to know.  Now, in my new life, I am going to go spend money to buy an outfit that I will only wear once, yet before I didn’t have enough clothes or food and such an idea would have seemed ludicrous.  I couldn’t help think to myself, “I’ve been given all of these opportunities, and what am I doing with them?”

When we arrived at Good Will we walked around for several minutes.  When Nathan saw that I had nothing in my hand to purchase he asked if I planned to buy anything.  I tried to be polite, as I said no, “Buddy, I think I have something in the house that I can use for tonight. He looked straight into my face as if he read something there. We continued to walk around but after a few more minutes he refused to buy anything too, and we left the store empty handed.

In the car I started laughing with Nathan and asking, “Why did we change our minds?” He laughed too and I saw that it was time for me to break the ice. I said, “You know you are my friend, and I better be honest with you. I felt bad as a person who grew up in poverty to go and buy a piece of clothing for one day that I will never use again. I don’t want to forget where I came from.  I worked in the factories as an unskilled laborer for many years. It was ten hours for a dollar in horrible conditions, and I can’t help reflecting on that past life.”

My friend listened to me carefully, and told me that in Good Will he had been hit by the same feeling. After visiting me in Kibera, he also felt that he had seen the outside world and cannot waste money on a one-night thing.  I am struck by his perceptions, his understanding.  Even though we grew up in totally different lifestyles, he sees where I came from—he sees me.

We decided to use what we have instead of buying new clothes.  We had a great night, but all throughout I was amazed by the protection afforded to me.  There were Residential Life Coordinators, Public Safety Officers, and Police Officers all there simply to ensure our safety.  Even as we enjoy ourselves inside the party, Area Coordinators from ResLife are standing outside, giving up their nights to ensure our safety and comfort.

This is not a world that I am used to. When I was growing up, no one looked out for my safety like this. Every time I saw a police officer in Kenya they were there to harass, not to protect, me.  Police officers in Kenya would threaten to imprison me if I couldn’t pay them a bribe: my only crime was poverty.

This is a call to the struggling masses to say that another world is indeed possible if you do not give up hope, and if when you reach the other side you remember where you came from.  I will never forget the time my friend Eric and I were hit by a car.  We tried to follow the case to get compensated so that we might be able to go to the hospital.  The police immediately dismissed the case, because since we were poor no one cared if a rich driver hit us.  Look at my life now: people take care of me, I get on the bus with the other Wesleyan students and the police are there to make sure I am safe and taken care of.  I must remember—none of this came to me on a silver plate, I worked to get where I am.  I vowed never to give up, to work hard in my life so that my children will never have to suffer as I did.  No matter what, no matter how many people told me I should, I never gave up hoping.  I knew the system was against me, and that no matter how hard I tried the system kept holding me back.

Don’t give up hope—and don’t forget your roots, your values and your struggle.

I am confident that another world is possible!

Thanks,

Ken

Make Fear Your Ally

Thank you for the comments on my posts; I am inspired by your words, and encouraged by your messages.

I’ve recently returned from spending the early winter months in Kenya, and there is much to tell you. News from the ground will come later, though—there are some words I’ve been driven to write, inspired by listening to your voices, your stories, and your hopes and resolutions for the New Year.

Here today, I want to share with you an event that changed my life when I was seven years old. It’s a story about self-direction and success. And it’s a story about fear and victory—how fear can rob you of your victory, but also how you can use fear to find victory in your life.

I went to an informal elementary school in Kibera known as Kisumu Ndogo Primary School with many other children from the slum. Our time at Kisumu Ndogo was filled with hot days spent in dark classrooms, our yelling voices often disciplined by teachers with a love for inflicting painful blows to the head with heavy sticks. During breaks and after school, there were always scuffles in the street and pounding feet over the dust and rocks as we played games and picked fights and imitated the moves of the heroes we admired.

In those days, to be a fighter was to be a hero. And we knew that heroes captured the admiration and respect of all. We believed that the more you fight, the more you win—and the more you win, the more you own the world. Our heroes were Bruce Lee, Slyvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes: the action stars we knew by watching them on the TV’s lining the little shop windows of Kibera. We were captivated by their brutality, strength, and honor. We dreamed of having this power and success for ourselves.

In second grade, there was a boy named Wycliffe in our class. His body was thin and undernourished—fragile and weak. If you pushed him with your fingers, he would easily fall down. And so the story begins: Kennedy vs. Wycliffe.

One day around 11am, after break time, I was running back into the classroom. As I ran, I accidentally stepped on Wycliffe’s feet and he shouted at me, “Stupid boy, you have a girls’ voice!”

My face burned in anger and embarrassment. His words were true—back then I had a strange pitch in my voice that held me back from talking to girls. I yelled in retort, “I’ll kick you, Wycliffe!” Wycliffe then stood up and shouted loudly, “Kennedy, today I’ll teach you a lesson. I’ll kick your ass.”

Suddenly realizing that the whole class was paying attention, I looked wildly around the room as everyone stared back. At that moment, fear took control. Fear conquered my body and mind. To make it worse, Mary—the beautiful girl I had a crush on—was staring at me. ‘Woh,’ I said in my heart, ‘What happens if this thin, slim boy kicked me in front of the whole class? No one will ever respect me.’

Believe, it or not, my body started to shake. I was trembling and didn’t know why. From my legs to the tips of my fingers, I shook, shivering as if suffering from malaria. I was scared that if Wycliffe kicked me, I would be shamed forever. With my body saturated in fear, I just went to my seat and surrendered to his threat. Everyone, amazed at how fearful Kennedy was, clapped for Wycliffe being the hero of the day. I looked around and saw Mary clapping, I wanted the earth to swallow me.

That moment taught me a lesson in my life about fear and loosing. I could have kicked Wycliffe easily—I was much larger than him, and there’s no doubt that my body could lay him flat. But Wycliffe had won even before the fight began. This tells you how we fail in our lives because of fear. We plant fear in our hearts, and minds, and these seeds bear fruit. And if we perceive fear as loosing and shameful, we let it direct our actions and we don’t stand up for ourselves or try anything because the fear is our enemy and destroys us.

So we must make fear our ally. In life, we have to make a choice in everything we do. And our actions and choices depend on how we view the issue. It is your choice if you want to see it from the thorn’s perspective or from the flower’s perspective. We have to decide whether to win or to lose! I’ve come to believe that if I lose…I win. And if I win, then still I win. Why? Because I love to fail when I try, rather than failing not to try. If I fail trying, I perceive it as winning. And thus I make fear my ally. It is a good thing I didn’t try to beat Wycliffe—that would have proved very little. Instead, the fear pushed me to examine my insecurities and embarrassment, and in the end it helped me grow. I remind myself that fear is my ally—it shows me how to be humble, how to think from other people’s perspectives, and how to better face the challenges of everyday life.  It teaches me how I want to be, and what I need to do to get there.

 

When I was starting SHOFCO in the middle of Kibera slums, 99% of the people I shared my vision with dis-encouraged me and told me I should focus on finding a job. They said factories and unskilled labor was the place of opportunity. I said No, my place in society is to bring transformation. I had to ask myself, is it only Americans and white kids from Europe who get to come to Africa and set up organizations? I said No! Kibera can also have its own brand, its own leaders and initiatives, and community projects. If those kids can do it, we can even do it much better than them because this is our home. I was afraid because everyone kept telling me what we were trying to do wouldn’t work out. So I spent much of my time finding people who believed in my dream. They were afraid, too—but we knew we had to try anyway. One of them was Kizito Nadebu, who now works for SHOFCO as the leader of the youth wing. We harnessed our fear into positive action to help the community. Many others have joined us, making friends with their fear and doubts, and in doing so have made many great things happen to improve Kibera.

Lets all make a stand and triumph over fear by making it our ally. What are you learning by examining your everyday fears? Will you see from the thorn’s perspective, or from the flower’s?

Peace,

Kennedy

I am the Roots of the Grass

My childhood was filled with the offerings of many communities. These diverse groups shaped me, and filled me with an understanding of the strength and power of what it means to truly live together in community. The people who raised me were extremely poor in materials, but their wealth could not be defined by the dichotomy of rich and poor as we so often understand it. They were generous in their hearts, wealthy in their kindness, and deep in their knowledge of human connection. These are the people who raised me.

I spend most of my early childhood and adolescence in Kibera—but Kibera was not my only home as a boy. I spent part of my childhood in Rongai, where I lived in small slum known as Kware. Many times, my family would leave me in our rural ancestral village in the Western part of Kenya.

Kibera, Kware, my village: all of these communities raised me. Each one gave me a different way of seeing, a different way of feeling , a different way of knowing—and each of these additions shaped my values and insight into the person I stand as today. I am the roots of the grass: rooted in the community of my childhood, as my spirit springs up to meet any challenge or call to action that faces me in the present day.

The most powerful tool all of these communities instilled in me was togetherness. In one we stand, but divided—we fall. Growing up, I learned I would accomplish little if I tried alone. The real power surfaced when we could come together and focus on a cause. Of course, a call to action was always needed—a rallying point, a story and vision to believe in. My communities growing up did not have Twitter or Facebook for their followers, and yet they moved mountains.

My supporters recently reminded me of the power of the grassroots movement. We were reaching for a finalist spot in the Girl Effect Challenge—in hopes of winning over $25k from the Girl Effect fund and the opportunity to share Shining Hope’s work with Girl Effect fans all over the world. I did not know how to get the donations to win—but was then reminded of the grassroots movement. In Kibera, although we had no Facebook or Twitter, we were able to come together and unite as one. In the village, we even joined together, collecting money to bury the dead according to their wish to rest in peace. We collected money and helped families bury their dead. We collected money to help with hospitals bills for the poor and cheap hospitals. And if we could not afford the bill, we gathered and demonstrated on the streets until the government listened to us.

Here in America more than 710 people joined together for the Girl Effect Challenge— on family tables, schools, at work—to ensure Shining Hope could win $25k to better the dreams of girls in Kibera. That was grassroots for me. And it taught me a lesson—those who gave to help us win the Girl Effect proved that Kibera’s struggle is their struggle. If Kibera can dream, then it will be a dream felt across the world.

Realize that the little things in life go far. If you are waiting for tomorrow to do big things, remember that there is no certainty tomorrow will come. That’s just the reality of it. You must be present and answer the call to action in the now. Thank you everyone—for standing up with our grassroots organization that was founded in the hearts of Kibera.

Peace!

Kennedy

Kibera Summer Reflections: 2011

I have been back home for almost three month but it still seems like I arrived yesterday.  I am not yet ready to leave to the United States. It’s always good to be back home in the neighborhood that I grew up in.  This is the place where I faced many challenges that prepared me for real life. I have to say it’s sad and fun to be back home. Its fun to see your friends, relatives and family members and it’s sad to see people still trapped in the same poverty that I left four years ago. It reminds me that it’s not easy to come out from this poverty and manipulation by the ruling class makes life so difficult for the poor. I feel sad to attend the burials of my friends who could not afford medication. Young people are dying here and it’s so painful as I wonder who will tell our stories, the stories of struggle, and the stories of survival.

I always make it clear that I didn’t get out of poverty because I’m smart. Many of my close friends are still suffering and yet they are the smartest people that I have known in my entire life. They are the people that I approach to listen to their ideas, but despite their brilliance they are trapped in a system that does not allow them the luxury of time and education to develop their talents.  Instead, they are consumed with thoughts of survival, of how to get a daily bread.

My friend Jimmy who I nicknamed Carter, after the US President, was my hero while I was growing up. I used to look up to Jimmy. He never got an education, but being uneducated never made him lose his focus. Jimmy worked as an unskilled laborer for many years. After many years of hard work, climbing up the ladder painstakingly slow, Jimmy became a skilled constructor. Jimmy became a hero in our community here in Kibera. Last year when I met Jimmy I cried for happiness, as I always looked up for him. I was so happy to see a hardworking poor man who became successful—as so often the story in Kibera is of wasted human potential. When I say Jimmy was a successful man, I don’t mean what the western world defines as successful. Jimmy could afford to pay his rent in the slums, had enough food, but still lives in his ten by ten mud house. When I met him last year, he had married. Jimmy was an orphan whose parents died in the village, leading him to come at an early age of 12 to find green pastures in Nairobi’s urban settlements. He thought life in the city was fun but it turned out to be hell, as Jimmy had no place to lay his head. Despite all of this, Jimmy made his way out and therefore he became my hero. He even taught himself how to write his own name.

Despite Jimmy’s struggle and ultimate success of having a wife, a steady income, and two beautiful children, the system did not want to see a poor man thrive.  I met Jimmy two weeks ago in the main street of Kibera near the railway line. It was a different Jimmy and I almost cried.  Jimmy had lost one of his legs! Jimmy told me that he lost his leg when he fell from the 20th floor of a house he was constructing. He fell while working and trying to earn a simple living. I could not stand seeing my friend in pain. Not only in pain, but he was in crutches and could not manage his mobility in a place like Kibera. The company never paid Jimmy for his work, there was no insurance, and they refused to even pay his hospital bills. Jimmy has gone back to square one, my hero could not penetrate the system.

What is a man to do in the ghetto? If he tries to join the gangs, he’ll be shot. If he tries to work hard the system is against still against. This is why my Rastafarian friend Ras Ndolo claims, “there is no problem but the system which doesn’t want to see us lifting up our heads.”

 

Stories like these are painful, that in order to continue believing and hoping I must contrast them against the stories of possibility and transformation that Shining Hope is making possible.  Indeed, my organization is progressing and at the moment we are building more classrooms. The girls at our school are so happy, and learning so much that they will have a real chance against the system. The largest water tower in Kibera is still under construction and the residents are so eagerly anticipating it’s opening. I’m thankful for my team in America and here in Kibera for their efforts to make us an organization able to change lives. We have touched the lives of many people and we are still growing.  This summer we also were joined by amazing young people though our Summer Institute. These volunteers are the future of the organization, as they remain ambassadors for life. The Kibera School for Girls also had opportunity to exchange ideas about our curriculum with teachers from The Chaplin School in New York.  That was a successful and remarkable moment.

I am about to travel back to the US for the start of the school year…

More writings on the way!!!!

 

Kennedy

We Shall Overcome

I look around every day of my life and I see my fellow brothers and sisters in all parts of the world struggling with life. It’s a struggle that everyone faces regardless of race, color or class. But we as individuals also have our own, unique struggles.  For the poor, it’s about survival and finding a daily bread. For some people it’s about making more money, and maximizing their profits.

Anyway, today I am blogging on the struggles of the human race. I know you or someone that you care about might be passing through a hard time. You feel tired and hopeless and you wonder what you can do. I have a message of hope and life, I believe that we truly only need one thing which is LOVE. I know some people are passing through different challenges in their lives, their relationship is falling apart and they can’t accept it. They have tried their best but it is still falling apart. I want to tell you to follow your heart, life has more to offer and tomorrow is another day.  Everything under the sun will pass as a history, and our struggle will be all gone and another day will come.

I always tell my friends to keep going despite the hardship that they are going through. We need to think of the future, never allow other people to ruin your life. I never allowed people to ruin mine, as I knew success and failure are both in me and I have to decide my own path. If anyone says terrible things I will not dare to stop even for a second, as I know that they want attention and I’ll not give them what they want. There is no temptation in our lives that we can’t overcome. Even if you fail, the important thing is what you have learned from it and that is what I call success.

All we need is to be humble and do our best and care less about the problems or the formula that will solve them.  There is no one right way to go about it. Have you ever taken a minute and thought of your past life? When you thought you were finished and later emerged as victorious? Then why do new problems swamp us? And yet we know that we have been through worse and will go through worse still. A lion is always ready to face any challenge head-on.

March like a soldier, as we are part of a movement that will never be shaken, but as individuals shall shake. Thinking positively is the greatest weapon of overcoming our challenges. Never give give-up my brothers and sisters!

Kennedy

From Eating in the Garbage to a Panel with President Clinton

I was in disbelief when I got the email.  “There is no way, I can share a platform with President Clinton and academy winner Sean Penn” I said to myself after receiving the email of invitation from the Clinton Global Innovative.  This must be spam, but before I deleted it I had to share it with Jessica Posner ‘09’ my co-founder of Shining Hope. My question was how could the former United States President share a panel with just a slum boy?

When I found out it was real, I have to admit I was really nervous.  But I give thanks to SHOFCO-Wesleyan, a student group at Wesleyan, who gave me encouragement that I can do it.   I think it is interesting however, to draw a picture of how different parallel lives can be.

In 1993, Clinton became the president of the United States of America. The same year a malnourished Kennedy Odede was hardly surviving. At that age I almost died from Malaria. The year 1993 my family was always between death and life, as my mom used leave me alone the whole day while she looked for odd jobs in the slums so that little Kennedy might survive. I was always hungry and sick and we had no money to do anything about it. In the world who could dare to dream, that a little boy striving to survive in the slums will one day meet the President Clinton who just got elected the same year.  President Clinton was in power from 1993 to 2001. My calculation tells me its ten years ago. Where was Kennedy, ten years ago?  I never dreamed of being able to continue my education.  I never imagined a bright future.

In 1995, the fellow panelist Sean Penn emerged as a prominent actor in “Dead Man Walking.” That same year little Kennedy joined the street life; I had to leave my family as they could not provide food for me and for my siblings. I had to search on my own, I slept cold on the streets under the stalls and food was difficult to come by. In short, I became a homeless kid whose only schooling was the harsh street life education.

As I sat onstage during the panel I thought—how my life has transformed.  I couldn’t help wondering about the common qualities shared by leaders— and if I had any of them?  I was born to an underage woman who was denied education and could not prosper. My stepfather mistreated my mother, she was often almost beaten to death but she never gave up on her kids. She taught me how to care about other people and to take action to bring change. My poor mom believed in education as she stated, “leadership without education is like being a puppet of the oppressor.” She believes that an informed educated leader will always be an obstacle to the oppressor. She instilled the value of women in me, despite my growing up in a community that women are degraded. I have never known my biological father, nor do I know his whereabouts. I felt a bit of a connection to, President Bill Clinton as his father passed away before he was born and his stepfather mistreated his mother and they were often abused. He came from a humble background and the first one from his family to attend college.

I never knew that one day I would be a panelist with the President Bill Clinton. I am optimistic but that was far beyond my thoughts.  I enjoyed meeting President Clinton, I had fun talking to him privately backstage. The man is a great listener and hopeful in everything. Sean Penn too was great, funny, interesting and also a listener. I can say that President Clinton and Sean Penn are just nice people like us who happen to be on the world stage. They are more than what we read or watch on the television. They are inspiring people to be around.

We never know what tomorrow might hold. But, I know the future of tomorrow and years to come are determined by the decisions we make and how we behave today. We better focus on our actions today to prepare of tomorrow and the future. President Clinton said that he wished to be young again. I was shocked to hear that from a respected man like President Clinton. The fact, is that we are the future and we have it within us to make it great beyond our imaginations. Let me challenge you: you’ll never be young forever, every moment is precious as we can impact change in your life and in that others. Every day of our life, precious time is taken away from us. I urge you to make use of it today and be an engine of change.

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