BOOK REVIEW: Find Me Unafraid
Author: Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner.
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers.
Reviewer: Odhiambo Orlale
Scores of books have been written about the Kibera, a sprawling informal settlement in Nairobi, but none has been as personalised and as vivid as Find Me Unafraid, by Kennedy Odede and his wife, Jessica Posner.
The easy-to-read 335-page biography reads like a thriller out of the sprawling biggest slum in East and Central African region.
The compelling story is about love, loss and hope in a slum where the two lovebirds have transformed the lives of the community through a model school. Kibera School for Girls is based under a broader innovative development effort called Shining Hope For Communities (Shofco) that has benefitted hundreds of girls in the past decade.
Indeed, the school is not just an education story: it is also a love story. Kennedy grew up in the slum, and Jessica, a Colorado, USA girl, whom he met and fell madly in love with while she had taken a year abroad to work on street theatre.
The two young and ambitious couple learnt from each other, she helped him get into Wesleyan University in the United States, on a full scholarship and together they later in 2009 founded the Kibera School for Girls on the banks of Nairobi River, on the border of the slum and Lang’ata area.
It was the slum’s first private free education school for vulnerable girls. Currently it has an enrolment of 216.
Shofco includes a clinic, a water source, economic empowerment programmes, a community newspaper and a women’s empowerment programme an initiative to fight gender based violence like rape and incest among others, and is planning to expand this model across Kenyan slums.
Since its publication in 2015, the best-seller has received positive reviews with the who-is-who giving their credit. They include Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, saying: “A bright beacon, an important tale of perseverance calling for the female leadership Africa needs and must have. Shining Hope for Communities is an example of the way development in Africa should be done.”
The foreword is by a renowned author/journalist, Nicholas Kristof who says in part: “Shofco is a love story, but it is also a lesson in development. The organisation succeeded in part because it had someone with local knowledge and charisma to lead the way, and in part because it had a policy wonk foreigner who could help open overzealous wallets.”
He describes that partnership as “potent” adding that if it is just foreigners, there is a risk that locals will see them as cash cows to be milked, or that a project will not have necessary buy-in from local people.
Indeed, Shofco is successful partly because it did not begin as an aid programme at all, but as a local empowerment movement, with Kennedy and his buddies organising soccer games and street performance decrying rape.
Only after it was well established did it take on more structured dimensions, building effective partnerships.
According to Kennedy, when he first met Jessica in Kibera, he could not believe that she would be his wife and call Kenya home one day. Together they have since created a powerful battalion that is unshakeable.
Says Kennedy: “A man is just a man, and without her I could never be where I am. It is always good to have someone who understands you better; someone who does not judge, someone who is focused on things beyond the material. Jessica is a gift to my community in Kibera and to all the stakeholders in Shofco. She knew how much I loved Kibera and instead of uprooting me from my community, she rooted me more deeply there.”
On his part, Kristof says Kennedy’s life underscores one of his favourite aphorisms: Talent is universal, but opportunity is not. Everyone who encounters Kennedy can see his prodigious gifts of leadership and enthusiasm, who tried his hand on thievery but fortunately he turned out to be a wretched mango thief and was so scared when he was caught that he mostly stayed honest after that.
There is a theory that cycles of poverty perpetuate and self-replicate in part because of despair. People feel hopeless, and then engage in self destructive behaviour that makes that hopelessness self-fulfilling.
The implication, and there is a fair amount of evidence emerging for this, is that the way to break cycles of poverty is to give people hope — and in the largest sense, that is what Kennedy and Jessica are doing through the hundreds of schoolgirls in Kibera and Mathare slums.
“They provide education, water, medicine and many more, but above all they provide a vision of hope, a trajectory toward a better life, a reassurance that maybe Kibera and indeed the world’s slums can become a better place,” Kristof maintains.
It is with that inspiration that Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, wrote about Kennedy and Jessica in their own book, A Path Appears, as an example of how a cross-country partnership can fight poverty and spread opportunity — hope.
In September 2014, Kennedy and Jessica’s second dream came true when they opened another exclusive school for girls in Mathare slums, where they have also built a health clinic and are providing the residents with clean water — all started and led by and led by local young people from the community.
So far, young people from other slums in Nairobi, among other towns have come looking for Kennedy, wanting to build Shofco’s in their respective communities, driven by this spirit of grassroots change.
Says Jessica: “One day we hope to help communities in Mombasa and Kisumu, all over the country, maybe even the continent, in building empowered, healthy communities and an urban movement for change and justice — and the next generation of women leaders.”
Too often humanitarians and journalists alike depict global poverty as uniformly bleak and grim. Aid groups do that because they think the way to raise money is to say how awful things are; journalists do it because they are in the business of covering planes that crash, not those that take off.
In his parting short, Kristof says the remarkable story of Kennedy and Jessica makes a fine antidote to that gloom.
“Sure, they faced enormous obstacles, but ultimately their personal and professional saga is uplifting, hopeful, and thrilling. And I hope someday you have the chance to not only read their incredible tale, but also to see their life’s work, taking a winding mud path through Kibera, only to turn a corner and find — something close to a miracle.”
Kennedy is one of Africa’s best-known community organisers and social entrepreneur and is also a World Economic Forum Global Leader, a member of the Clinton Global Initiative, and a Trustee of Wesleyan University.
Jessica won the 2010 Do Something Award and was named America’s Top World-Changer 25 and Under; and has received the prestigious Echoing Green Fellowship.