youth-led development in a Kenyan slum–“Find Me Unafraid”

Summary of Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner. Find Me Unafraid. Ecco, 2015.

Kennedy Odede grew up in one of the largest African slums, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. His mother struggled to save $3 to pay for the informal school since there are no government schools or other services in the slums including sanitation or water and power, but they were turned away because tuition was $5 a month. As a girl his mother wasn’t sent to school but secretly taught herself because, “A girl reading was rebellion.” He learned basics from other boys who were able to go to school. His family couldn’t afford to buy water, so his mother filtered sewage water through sand. They shack was invested with lice and fleas but soap wasn’t affordable either. Their only book was the Bible. His drunken stepfather beat him more severely than the rest of the family, so he left home to join a gang of street boys at age 10. They stole to eat, picked through garbage in more prosperous areas, or sniffed glue to muffle hunger pangs. When his best friend was killed by a mob for stealing, a common occurrence, he left. He found a priest who would help him out and gave him a dictionary, but he returned home and was replaced by a pedophile who painfully molested Odede. He then learned from a Rastafarian group and was influenced by reading books by Martin Luther King, Marcus Garvey who said “Africa for Africans,” and Nelson Mandala.

When he was 16, he made a soccer ball out of trash in order to provide something positive for the youth, the beginning of SHOFCO, Shining Hope for Communities. He explained, “I was tired of being angry. I was tired of violence. Enough is enough.” He thought if he could bring the community together having fun, good would result. After a game, they decided to start a lending group similar to one his mother started for neighborhood women, a plan called “pass it forward” where instead of paying it back, the recipient picks another person to receive the loan. In addition to soccer games, Odede and his friends did street theater to protest rape, a common problem even for little girls in such a crowded community where children were often unsupervised, police accept bribes from rapists, and elections are rigged.

When he gathered seven friends to start SHOFCO, one of them asked if had a white donor, reflecting the common belief that change could only come with Western support and knowhow. Odede knew that grassroots organizing and community involvement is the only effective solution. He quoted his mother, “Only he who wears the shoe knows how it pinches” and “When a snake bites you, don’t spend time looking for a spear. Use what ever stick you have.” He replied that they didn’t need money to clean the streets, organize co-ed soccer, do journalism, or perform street theater to expose problems and solutions to protect girls and women from abuse. He said they were starting a movement, which happens when “you have been pushed to the wall and all you can do is bounce back.” 163 They were joined by some members of the Catholic church youth group that expelled Odede because he advocated condoms to prevent HIV infection. Hundreds joined in their first cleanup effort, singing together as they worked. They organized a women’s empowerment program called SWEP.

In 2007, after four years of organizing, their performance group was invited to the World Social Forum. They made T-shirts and bracelets to sell for fund raising and performed his play “Another World is Possible.” By this time SHOFCO had thousands of members, mostly young people and women of various ages. The community called Odede the Mayor.

With the help of Jessica Posner, a Wesleyan African Studies student on her junior year abroad, they got grants and were able to build a girls’ school called the Kibera School for Girls to be the center of community transformation, a community center, toilets and clean water, a medical clinic including AIDS treatment, a nutrition program, a preschool and day care. Other community development projects were a cleanup program, computer education, and providing sanitary napkins to schools so girls could attend. They started a boarding house for girls who were abused and raped, unsafe at home, and a community group to advocate for rape victims in the legal system. Odede also organized the Urban Network, called SUN, for young people and women to organize for their rights and start businesses. Facilitators lend money to create over 400 businesses a year. When tribal violence threatened in 2014, Odede brought together community leaders and their wives to sign a peace declaration and a thousand people marched in support of peace. The same year they opened a girls’ school in Mathare, the second largest slum in Nairobi, led by young people from the community. Odede and Posner aim to spread these programs throughout Africa.

Posner insisted on staying in his shack to experience the community, talking a bath in two plastic pans of water, using the outdoor pit latrine, getting scabies and malaria. Without electricity, he used a battery-powered radio. Despite these difficulties, they fell in love and eventually married after he graduated from Wesleyan. At the university he was amazed by the running water in the shower and the abundance of food in the cafeteria that didn’t run out SHOFCO applied for grants from Echoing Green, Dell Social Innovation Competition, Do Something Award, America’s Top World Changer, 25 and Under,” and Newman’s Own Foundation.

The reason for their success is Odede involved the community and overcame tribal rivalries, as by including girls from different tribes in the school (last names indicate tribal background, similar to caste in India.) Parents don’t pay tuition but volunteer at the school for five weeks a year overseen by a parents’ committee. He understood the informal hierarchy that must be involved for a project to be successful in a way that an outsider wouldn’t know.

Odede reported that although women are not educated and may be beaten, “In African culture, women are sacred—seen as the givers of life.” In contrast, American expects women to look like “tiny toothpicks.” 55 When he was 10 his mother started a lending circle of neighborhood women and made him the secretary because he was the only one who could write. The husbands prohibited the group meeting because it gave the women “horns,” so they met in secret. 59 His mother had another idea to empower women; they would all scream loudly when a woman was beaten by her husband, making it impossible to sleep, so neighbors would pressure the husbands to stop.


Odede reported that in villages the council of elders makes decisions for the community, such as arranging marriages, and can prophesize the future and read signs. One such elder had an accurate vision about the night he would be born to his 15-year-old mother. P. 22 They also believe older people can curse younger ones.

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