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?