I’m cynical about stories of men from the slums who meet white, missionary-like NGO types and fall in love. Of course I had heard of Kennedy Odede of Shofco and this narrative fit the bill so I watched it unfurl from afar, like you would a street magician perform his shtick. I thought that it was all smoke and mirrors, a shorthand of humanitarianism. Plus it didn’t help that it was based in Kibera, the poster-child of slums. Kibera, to me, was like a warm fire in winter where the morally-stricken white folk gathered around to warm their conscience.
I was still cynical when I went over to interview Bob Collymore in his mansion in Kitisuru when he came back from his cancer treatment. After the interview he gave me a book. “Read this book. It’s a good book.” It was by – drum rolls – Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner: Find Me Unafraid, Love Loss and Hope In An African Slum. “Of course,” I thought to myself warily when I read the title, the wet cement around my cynicism drying up. It seemed like a love story from the slums. I’m not even keen on love stories from Muthaiga, so I tossed it in the backseat of my car promising to read it at traffic lights and traffic jams, and only because Bob Collymore had recommended it.
A fortnight passed. One Sunday morning, as I sat writing at my desk at home, guess who calls me? Dorothy Ghettuba, TV Entrepreneur. I’m sorry, I’ll take that again; Dorothy Ghettuba – Pala. Of course it’s only you guys who call her that. I have always just called her “Drizzie.” I say, “Drizzie, to what do I owe this Sunday morning phone call, is Oyunga in the sin bin?” She chuckles and says, “Biko, there is a gentleman you really need to meet. He’s amazing!” Anybody Dorothy ever told me was amazing always turned out to be amazing. So I ask who this amazing person is. She says – drum rolls – “Kennedy Odede.”
This guy kept showing up like a bad penny. She says he just won a big humanitarian award. She says “He’s a gentleman you will enjoy talking to,” and texts me his phone number. I Google him and for the first time I read about what he’s doing in Kibera. Two days later I call him and we meet at Serena’s Aksum Bar for an interview with the Business Daily, which you can read HERE.
We really connect. I wrote in that interview that Odede is the kind of guy you meet and you wish you had met earlier. In a city where everybody comes to you wearing a mask, he comes naked. He talks about poverty, class and about his humanitarian work. He talks about his wife in a way people don’t talk about their wives anymore. He talks about Kibera with passion, with pure love. He talks about the misunderstanding of Kibera by the middle class who have never set foot there but hold impassioned opinions about it. I sit there shaking my head, pretending that I’m not part of this ugly middle-class he’s talking about and I’m hoping he’ll not ask me if I have been to Kibera because then I will be forced to tell him the truth, which will disappoint him and he will think, “Oh, here we go, one of them is right here.”
But then he asks me if I have been to Kibera and I say, “Well,” which is always how guilty people start answering questions, “I have been to the periphery of Kibera.” He would have left it at that if he truly believed that Jesus died for our sins, but he doesn’t. He asks, “Periphery?” I tell him “Yeah, I have seen it from the Southern Bypass.” He laughs and says, “You have seen the roof of Kibera.” He tells me, “You can’t know me if you don’t know where I have come from.” So he organises with one of his stalwart friends and colleagues at Shofco called Serkal, a quiet man with a dangerous gait, and on one wintry mid-morning I tour Chocolate City. But unlike you, the middle-class, I don’t remove my watch or leave my wallet in the office. I won’t tell you what Kibera is like; that is something you need to witness on your own. But I remember seeing what Odede has done for his community and I thought, damn, what have I done for anyone else other than my own children? I was challenged. So I called him after my visit and asked him if I can write a story on the blog and he said, “Sure.”
So here we are at a restaurant on another glum, nippy day, and he’s telling me about his poverty-stricken childhood in Gatwekera slums in Kibera. The gangs of Kibera would hurl big stones through doorways to steal from the rich of Kibera, who, it turns out, is anyone who owns a radio or a TV. Or anyone who could afford meat. Gangs with ironic names like The 12 Disciples and 42 Brothers.
He’s telling me about the violent tribal wars between the Luos and the Nubians, the unrelenting and macabre wave of violence that would sweep through the slums without notice. How even the police could not venture into certain areas of Kibera because untold violence and danger lurked there and there was no rule of law and justice was meted by fate. His childhood unfolds like a surreal movie about the gangs in the favelas of Brazil. He talks about the rapes he witnessed. The class system even in the slum. The constant lack of food in their house. The body lies that sucked what poverty left of their bodies. The angry husbands whose sense of dignity and manhood had been shrunk by poverty and the anger and domestic violence that ignited from that wretched insecurity.
He tells me of the campaign season and how politics darkens the hearts of men, plants seeds on the manure of that poverty and when it germinates men reach for pangas and turn to their neighbours, people they have grown up next to for years, and they cut them like you would sirloin. He frames the hopelessness of his childhood with such dramatic prose. He gesticulates wildly. His eyes widen. He often switches to Dholuo because there are some things English just doesn’t have the right colour to capture. And I sit there, the prior visit to Kibera still lingering in my mind, and I smell poverty and desperation in his words.
“I opened my eyes in Kibera, even though I wasn’t born there. I went there when I was a year old,” he says. “Like Bob Marley. He was not born in Trench Town, he was born in the village, but he always talks about Kingston, Trench Town. Martin Luther King was just a small time reverend from a small church in Alabama, but his voice was eventually heard by the whole world. Such stories inspired me.” He also peppers conversation with mention of Marcus Garvey.
He tells me of how he finally runs away from home, from the domestic violence, when he’s 10. And he’s out in the streets, a chokora, eating out of garbage, snatching purses off the arms of women, begging, and hurling human excrement on those who hesitate to hand over a few coins, sniffing petroleum fumes and glue. “You know, when you sniff glue you can sleep in the open cold of the night and be rained on and you won’t feel a thing. You can sleep through fire.” Of course he doesn’t mean it literally, otherwise people would carry glue to hell and then there will be no gnashing of teeth. (And what fun is that?)
His idea of riches was households that could afford bread and maybe meat, people who had a radio in their houses. But in the streets he saw, for the first time, another dimension of wealth; men and women driving big cars. He saw men eating in restaurants! Restaurants! He hated the rich. Hated them for having so much when he had so little. Hated them for rolling up their windows when he approached their cars because was he not human like them? “Poverty makes you invisible, a sub-human,” he says. “It takes away your dignity, you lose your confidence and your voice, your opinion is neither needed nor sought. You lose your voice. This is why during elections the poor in the slums go to the streets, it’s a desperate attempt to remind you that we exist, that we are here and you can’t continue pretending that we don’t exist.” A preacher took him in because he wanted to speak English “like a white man” and there, in church, he discovered books and in books he escaped into a world of fantasy and dreams and possibilities.
“When you are pushed against the wall by poverty and inequality, and you have nowhere to go, you start to think for yourself. I thought, what if we build something so shiny in our slums, a very bright light that would make everybody ask, ‘What is that shining in Kibera, let’s go and see.”
How he started SHOFCO you can read in his book or online. But a soccer ball is involved, and it eventually grows beyond football. It’s now piped water that runs overhead like electricity, it’s a medical center, it’s a school for girls, it’s a library, it’s a safe house for sexually and domestically abused women. It’s bloody amazing. He doesn’t call Shofco an NGO, he calls it a movement. Because it’s driven by people who want better for their own community. It’s the light of hope. It’s amazing that he started SHOFCO when he couldn’t speak English, when he only had one branded Safaricom t-shirt in his wardrobe.
“You know they say people in slums are lazy and don’t work hard, but how much harder does one have to work when a woman wakes up at 4am to go to Marikiti market to buy tomatoes? How much harder can a man work when he rises at 4am to walk many kilometers to Industrial Area to work in a factory? Poverty isn’t about how hard you work; poverty is a trap, a maze, you walk in there trying to find the exit and you don’t because the world has locked you in.”
But what is a good story without a girl? Enter stage left: Jessica Posner.
Here is what I think of Jessica. So Odede is this massive dhow that was built to sail very far into the next frontier, into new uncharted seas. But what is a big dhow if it doesn’t have a big mast? It will only bob and drift not too far from the lagoon. Jessica is that mast. The mast that catches the wind. The mast that helps the dhow navigate the treacherous high seas.
It’s safe to say that his movement and life took a turn when he met Jessica, a yankee who came to Kenya to study under a program. She sent him an email requesting to help in his work at SHOFCO and he said “No, we don’t want any white folk here helping us, we can help ourselves.” (He was a rastaman, he says, but without locks.) She kept trying. He finally said, “Send us your CV.” He laughs. “We didn’t even know what a CV was! But I thought if we told her that, we would look like a very important organisation. She sent her CV and we didn’t even know what to look for.” He replied saying they didn’t need aiders, they needed people with skills. “We didn’t want mzungus hanging around here in the name of slum tourism,” he says. “And they are many. We had seen lots of mzungus who came here to use us to get into Ivy league schools like Yale and Harvard, using our poverty as a stepping stone. Our own local middle-class and upper class didn’t care what was going on in Kibera, they were happy in their houses with their gates. Everybody who we had experienced in Kibera had an agenda and the agenda was theirs, not ours. We were alone, and we had made peace with that so I told Jessica, ‘No thanks.’” He laughs. He laughs a lot, and when he laughs he high-fives. I’ve never high-fived any interviewee as much as I did Odede.
Anyway, Jessica didn’t give up; eventually they met in Java, Adams Arcade, 2007. His first time in a restaurant. He tells me this story in Dholuo and I’m laughing so hard I almost fall back in my chair. Since you all refuse to learn Dholuo I will have to translate it into English but it won’t be as funny.
We take small things for granted. He had never in his life been presented with choice before and suddenly he had a menu before him and a menu represented choice. There were all these things in the menu that he had never heard of: like chocolate chip pancake. Trying to read Huevos Rancheros gave him a headache, let alone trying to figure out what the hell that was. And what on earth was “fajita.”? It sounded like someone’s name; Fajita Fatuma. He was in way over his head. He studied the menu with fascination. He couldn’t find tea and bread in that menu because they call bread “toast” at Java. Those colonisers! Toast? Would it kill them to call it bread? Poor Kennedy. On the other hand he wanted to show this white lady seated across from him that he ran a small NGO, uhm, movement and that he was important and that he had dignity even though he was dirt poor. Jessica ordered a salad. “Leaves, Biko! Leaves, bwana!” he tells me laughing. So he grudgingly ordered the same and suffered through the indignity of eating a rabbit’s lunch.
The rest of the story is in his book. Jessica got in and not only did she get in, at some point she offered to stay in the slums, in his grubby 10 by 10 room, where he used paraffin and the walls were made from paper so thin a goat could sneeze and bring it down. They fell in love in this debris of poverty because loves sometimes grows from the most desperate of places. “Jessica is a tough woman. Very. She also has a very special heart, a clean and accepting heart. A white woman with a black* heart. She was the only person outside Kibera who saw me for me, not for my dirty clothes or for my poverty. She saw the person I was and she understood my ambition and dream and because she’s a smart woman she had the language for it. She knew what my heart sought and my heart sought a better life for my community and my heart sought her.”
I say, “Yaye, Odede. Don’t make me break into song.”
To his surprise, and to the surprise of his mates in the slum he married her eventually.
“When did you know that your life had changed, that you had escaped the smelly mouth of poverty?” I ask. He laughs at that analogy that I will have you know I came up with all by myself because I was wearing my big boy pants.
“In the plane.” He laughs.
“Yes, Biko, my very first time in an aeroplane to join a most prestigious school, Wesleyan University, a school for elites. Me, Kennedy Odede, a poor boy from Kibera in the plane! My God, if that was not a miracle, what is?” He laughs. He switches to Dholuo. “First, when the flight attendant called me sir, I was confused. I looked behind me, because nobody had ever called me sir before. I said, ‘Excuse me, are you talking to me?’ She said, ‘Would you like white or red wine, sir?’ Biko, I had never drunk wine in my life. All I knew from the slums was chang’aa. What was that?! Jessica was smiling, silently amused. I said, ‘Can I have both?” and they brought me both red and white wine! Ha-ha-ha. [High-five]. When they asked me if I wanted chicken or fish I said “Bring both!” They brought fish and chicken. “Would you like vinegar, sir?” “I don’t know what that is but bring it.” I ate everything, Biko, everything. Ha-ha. [High-five]. I was very skinny, ask Jessica, I was very skinny. When I arrived in America I discovered that people actually used hot water that poured from the top and it never ran out! You stand there and hot water falls on you! I remember showering for two hours until they came to check if I was fine.” Laughs. [High-five]. “And in school, when my friends would go to the gym they’d try to invite me but I’d refuse. I’d ask them “Why do you want to go lift weights?” and they’d say, “So that we sweat.” I told them, “Sweat? My friend, I worked and sweated in construction sites for many years, I’m not sweating again, let me enjoy.” Ha-ha-ha. [High-five]
We laugh so hard at this story but we are at Under The Radar restaurant and it’s just after 2pm so thankfully it’s virtually empty except for a couple that just had lunch. The man, staring into space, has a toothpick sticking out his mouth. The lady is on her phone. The modern face of happy marriages. The man turns once in a while to look at us, wondering what the hell could be that funny for these guys to laugh so loudly and talk so animatedly. I bet he wanted to join us if there was 0 percent chance that he would not be in trouble with his lady later. Or that it would never be brought up in future during a fight.
America was confusing. Confusing because poverty followed him there. It was in his bones. In his pockets. In his breath. In his head. Here he was in this esteemed company of rich folk and he, a slumdog, felt like an imposter. Like he didn’t belong. He felt like if he admitted that he was from a slum they would shun him. Because who wants to rub shoulders with poverty? So he would hide Kibera under his hat until Jessica told him that he should be proud of where he’s from, that this was America and nobody cared where you came from, and that he represented an American dream. So he “came out.” And the reaction was astounding. People were impressed that a boy from the slums was in with them. They wanted to know about his girl-education program. They wanted to know how they can be a part of this movement. He was a hero. “In America where I was from didn’t matter. Here it’s about money, if I make a lot of money people will not care about how I made it in bad ways, they will just look at the money. There nobody will give you respect if you stole lots of money. I learnt about integrity. That they cared about who you were as a person and what you represented, not necessarily what you owned or who your father is.”
Word went around. Soon he was rubbing shoulders with A-list movie stars, having dinner at Oprah’s house, meeting with Bill Clinton and Sean Pean and whatnot. “I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” he says. “In fact, I’d call my mom and she would ask me, how is amerka and that’s when I would know that I was still on earth.”
Recently he won the Oscars of the humanitarian world called the Hilton Humanitarian Award. It’s the world’s largest annual award for non-profits. It comes with a prize of $2million.
“Why do you think all these things happened for you?” I ask him. “Why you? Why are you the deserving one and not some other man from Kibera?”
For the first time he seems not to know how to answer the question. He pauses and squints at the table. “Look, I will be honest with you. For a long time I didn’t know I was doing something important until people started telling me I was. It’s weird. And I’m trying to accept it slowly. For me I’m doing what I’m supposed to do.” He pauses and tries to answer it in Dholuo. The rough translation is that “the tree fell on him.” It could be luck. Or chance. “I tell people, the tree fell on me. And there are many ways it could have fallen on anyone else many years ago. There are many ways I could have died, there are many ways something could happen. But somehow my life is not normal, this life I have led is not normal – from Kibera to America. Build this big organization that is helping people. No. It’s not normal. My life is more luck than anything else but at the same time I don’t want my child to live only by luck. It seems so simplistic. [Pause]. I always say that opportunity is scarce, but talent is global.”
He would come back to Kenya for vacations and notice that he was balancing on two class worlds. In the US he was lauded as a community champion and he schmoozed with important people, but back in Kenya he was Kennedy from the slums. “It dawned on me, rather in a funny way, that I didn’t have any middle-class friends! And that’s the thing Biko, poverty lacks networks. You are so enclosed in this life that you only know people who are as poor as you. That’s why it’s hard to break it.”
“Now that you are rubbing shoulders with whos-who, have you gained a foothold in the elite class?”
He sighs. “There is an elite club in this country that you can’t really be allowed in. I think it’s because of…” he searches for the word.
“Yes! Pedigree! You know I’d be at a function and talk about my time in the states and the people would be keen but the moment I mentioned Kibera, people stepped back. They flinched. You know what I mean? Because that represents poverty and nobody wants to be associated with that. They want to hear about your moments with Oprah but not with a sexually-abused girl in Kibera. They’re off when you mention Kibera. It happened to me a lot. I used to cry, like what’s wrong with this country? It used to make me so sad that that our own people are embarrassed of our own. Jessica told me, ‘Kennedy, you can meet anyone in America. Madonna, Beyonce, the head of Gucci are all supporting SHOFCO. Clinton believes in you. You go to Nigeria and you meet people like Dangote. It means you are doing something important. So focus on what you are doing.’ It made sense. I stopped trying to figure out the class structure. But then things started changing and a lot of local people started coming to ask how they can help, how they can be a part of helping people in Kibera. Remember that shining light I mentioned? It was shining and people were asking, what is that shining in poor people’s neighbourhood? ”
Does hanging out with stars make you a star? I wonder. What does it mean to sit in Oprah’s house for dinner? Or be in the same space with Madonna? What does it mean when Tom Hanks walks around a room holding your hand and asking other stars, “Have you met Kennedy? He’s doing amazing work in Africa?” Just how hot is Beyonce up close? Do you feel your eyebrows singe when she looks at you? (Ok, strike this one. It’s just my random thought). I asked him if that has changed his composition in any way.
“Biko, don’t forget that these people are keen to work with me not because I’m the life of the party,” he says. “It’s because of what I have done and what I continue to do and my passion to help my community rise from poverty. It’s like a dream of course, but what gives me the most joy is when I go back to Kibera and I see what we have done; girls going to school, clinics and piped water. I love when women who saw me as a child say they are proud of what their child has done, because they will never see me as a grown up, I’m still nyathini. Haha. I like humility because of where I have been. Poverty humbles you. Humility also takes you far. But this is also a confusing time because I’m asking myself the question; who am I? Am I Odede the guy who meets Clinton or am I Odede the boy from Kibera? When people say Odede is successful it makes me uncomfortable because that’s not what I set out to do. I want them to say, Shofco is successful. I don’t want to be successful alone when people from Kibera are not. I want us to be successful. But also I’m told that I have to celebrate what I have done. [Pause] It’s a very confusing time for me now. But you know what is not confusing, Biko? I found the secret of happiness?”
What is that?
“Rising with people. When I walk in Kibera I’m not the only one walking with his head held high. Mothers and girls and boys are. People who Shofco has touched. I love it when girls who couldn’t speak a work of English a few years ago can read books. That is the secret of happiness, when you rise with people, not alone. I have gotten many lucrative job offers; a UN posting in New York, an opportunity to manage hedge funds, but I said no, because then I would be doing it for myself not for my community in Kibera. There is great joy in giving, greater joy in many people smiling than in only you smiling. ”
“So how does one learn to become selfless? Is it practiced or it’s inborn?”
He moves closer to me like he’s about to tell me a secret. And he does.
“I have met some of the most powerful and wealthiest men in America. I have also met some of the poorest people in Africa. Do you know what these two people have in common?”
“They are people.”
“Exactly! You are smart. You can make lots of money but still be very empty. Greed is prostitution; you want this and you want that and you want this again. You will never be happy. But if you live a purposeful life, you will find happiness. Think of someone else for a change. Take someone like you, Biko; you don’t look like you are struggling…”
“This month, I am,” I say. He laughs.
“No, I mean you can afford to pick an orphan and take them to school until they finish, right? It won’t cost you much. But we don’t. We want more when that orphan has nothing. If you take that child to school you will experience the joy that making a million shillings can’t give you. Believe me.”
“Does purpose find you or do you find it?” I ask him.
He laughs and leans back in his chair, “Biko, you ask difficult questions!” There is a pause. “You have to search, my brother. You have to search for it here.” He points at my nipple, but he means heart. “You have to search within yourself.”
He nods. I nod. We nod because it’s a lovely moment, a poignant one even. He’s only 34, but things are clear to him. Clearer at least. He has a son that is a few weeks old. He has a wonderful wife who continues to provide him with wisdom, direction and anchorage. He has just won a major award. Bill Gates tweets him. Obama knows his name. He can get Hillary Clinton on the phone in an hour if he wanted to. Or Oprah. A boy from Kibera done good. The boy a tree fell on. Does he know who genuinely wants to help or who wants to bask in his glory? He says he doesn’t know. He says it bothers him sometimes.
I have to pick up my daughter from school. I’m already 30 minutes late and I’m never late. We had a tiff the previous day. I had spoken to her angrily, in a raised voice and told her “This is nonsense, we are not going to have this conversation again, are we clear, Tamms?” She apologised, in a teary voice. And now I was a no-show to pick her up, the first time it’s happened. She probably thinks I have abandoned her. Disowned her. My poor baby. As we stand up he says, “Be careful with your children. Be careful how you raise them. I see and hear a lot of cases of mental health and suicides in wealthy families, you know why?”
“Why?” I ask, looking around. The happy couple is gone.
“Because we forget to teach our children the purpose of life. We show them money. I have a lot of billionaires in America sending their children to Kibera to see the other side of life. They come. Why? You have to remind them it’s not about money. It’s good to have enough and know what is enough and be comfortable with what is enough. There are things we will never buy for our children, that I won’t be able to buy for my son, and it’s showing them the value of giving, or being a human being with compassion. Show them both worlds, balance their world.” At the parking lot we embrace because we are aware we just shared a special afternoon, and he jumps in the back of a big black car and I jump in the front of a small black car.
His words ring in my head as I go to pick up Tamms; “balance their world.” I find her sitting in her classroom. She isn’t mad. I touch the back of her neck and tell her I’m sorry I’m late. I tell her I was interviewing someone who just wouldn’t shut up. “My God, Tamms, he went on and on and on. I fell asleep.” She grins. In the car I ask her, “What do you think is the purpose of life?” A difficult question for a 10-year old, but don’t we pay good money in school fees so that they can be able to handle such questions?
“Yes, do you know what purpose is?”
“Yes, why we live?”
“Exactly. What is the purpose of life?”
She bites her lip, thinking, and says, “To be successful.”
“What is success?”
“To read hard in school and get a good life.”
“A good life is not money,” I tell her and I get into a long, inspiring spiel, which I’m sure bores the hell out of her. She doesn’t nod off, though.