Say Yes: Kennedy Odede's Journey

Kennedy Odede

At Echoing Green, we believe in the positive impact of saying “yes.” Yes to opportunities. Yes to taking responsibility for social problems. Yes to those inevitable obstacles, and facing them head on. Yes even to fear, and going toward it.

Few people sum up the spirit of saying “yes” more than 2010 Echoing Green Fellow Kennedy Odede, the first person from Kibera, Africa’s largest slum, to graduate from an American college.

Cheryl Dorsey and I were there at Wesleyan University to see it happen this weekend. We had promised we would be three years ago, after we granted Kennedy and his partner Jess Posner with an Echoing Green Fellowship to help support their organization, Shining Hope for Communities. Now that it was happening, there was no way we were going to miss it.

Kennedy delivered Wesleyan’s senior commencement address with a riveting seven minute speech that ended with all 713 graduates repeating after him to “Promise to champion hope throughout the world.”

Kennedy was born to a 17 year old woman in Kibera, Kenya, where there are “one million people in (a place) the size of Central Park.” The oldest of eight siblings, his family struggled from extreme poverty. With little food, he was malnourished and often had to scavenge. He writes in his blog:

My mom used leave me alone the whole day while she looked for odd jobs in the slums… I was always hungry and sick and we had no money to do anything about it.

Like so many born into slums, school was not a given. He relayed a moving story in his graduation speech about his hope for education. He wanted to learn and play like the others he saw in informal schools throughout Kibera. His mom was a fierce believer in education and saved for months for $3 to pay for his school fees.

When we reached the school, I was smiling from ear to ear, so excited about the bright future ahead. The principal told us that while they did have open spaces, the school fees were $10 per year—not $3. My mom, a woman of great pride, begged and pleaded but had no luck.

As we left, I saw the children playing in their bright school uniforms, and as I looked down at my torn clothes, tears began to stream down my face. I wanted to be them so badly—I saw opportunity in front of me but knew that I could not be part of it. My mom told me that she was sorry. She had tried her best.

Even though someone said “no” to Kennedy and his mother, Kennedy found other ways to get his education. He spent his early years learning the best he could, watching community members, and asking questions every chance he could. He taught himself to read and was especially attracted to stories of people who turned their lived experiences into positive change, like Martin Luther King, Bob Marley, and Nelson Mandela.

Even after he enrolled in an informal school, he soon had to leave in the name of survival:

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.

Eventually he found work:

I worked in the factories as an unskilled laborer for many years. It was ten hours for a dollar in horrible conditions.

Even as Kennedy walked two hours to his factory job for a daily wage of $1.50, he dreamed his life could be different.

When I arrived home to the slum that evening, I was horrified to discover that my friend Alvin had hanged himself—tired of living a life confined to poverty with only one possible goal: survival.

This was a moment that changed me. I did not want to waste my life.

With twenty cents from my job, I bought a soccer ball and started a movement of young people fighting for social justice in Kibera.

From his blog, he writes:

With this soccer ball, I started…one of the first youth groups in Kibera founded and run by slum residents.

With no funding, but with faith in people’s abilities to change their own lives, I expanded this group, working with thousands of people on AIDS education, female empowerment, microfinance, sanitation, and community health work.

In his speech, he relayed:

While I was growing this movement, I met [Jess Posner] a Wesleyan student studying abroad in Nairobi. She thought I should apply to a school I’d never heard of, and without knowing what would happen, I said yes!

Kennedy jokes that he couldn’t point to Middletown, Connecticut on a map. But, with his trust in education and in Jess Posner’s recommendation, he faced his fear. He said “yes” though he had no idea what would come of it.

Kennedy’s application was extremely unusual. He had no SAT scores. His educational records were hand-written on a piece of scrap paper. However, he had extraordinary essays and letters of recommendation that moved Wesleyan, too, to do something incredible, that moved them to say “yes.” To their great credit, Wesleyan took a chance on Kennedy.

New York Times writer, Nick Kristof documents this incredible act in a recent op-ed:

Kennedy told Jessica of his dream to get an education, and Jessica nudged the Wesleyan admissions office into offering him a full scholarship — even though he had never gone to formal school before.

But getting on a plane, coming to America, and enrolling in formal schooling for the first time in his life at age 23, didn’t stop Kennedy and Jessica from continuing to work on behalf of Kibera. As he said in his speech:

In my freshman dorm room at 200 Church, I founded the nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities with the help of another Wes student, Jessica Posner. Through Shining Hope we built the Kibera School for Girls—the slum’s first tuition-free school for girls.

Shining Hope grew because the entire Wesleyan community embraced it: from my mentor Professor Rob Rosenthal, who first told me, in true Wesleyan fashion, that I should “go for it,” to every Wesleyan student who has ever bought a bracelet.

Wesleyan students, professors, faculty and alumni fueled this change in my community, and SHOFCO has grown to build a health clinic, clean water, and community services that will reach over 30,000 people this year.

Together we are building hope across the world.

My dream is to attend a Wesleyan commencement 13 years from now, and sit where our families are today, to watch a graduate of the Kibera School for Girls accept a Wesleyan diploma, proving yet again that it does not matter where you come from—only where you want to go.

Kennedy Odede waved his diploma to the cheers of thousands, showing off the result of saying “yes,” even when the world says “no.”

In Kennedy’s words:

I believe we will only live in a better world if we are willing to take risks to make it a reality, only if we are willing to say YES.

My fellow graduates, I hope that we continue to say YES today, tomorrow and throughout our lives.

Will you take Kennedy up on his challenge today?

(Photo Courtesy of Wesleyan University)

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