Outside the boundaries of Kenya, Kennedy Odede is something of a celebrity. A former slumdog, he started Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), that combats poverty and gender inequality in the slums. Through this work, he has been awarded the Echoing Green Fellowship, given to the world’s best emerging social entrepreneurs. He is also a member of the Clinton Global Initiative. He is probably the only person in Kibera to attend the prestigious Wesleyan University. Recently, he won the Oscar of humanitarian world: The Hilton Humanitarian Award, the world’s largest annual award to non-profits that have made extraordinary contributions towards alleviating human suffering. Because when it rains it pours, he is also a new father of a three-week boy. He met JACKSON BIKO at Serena’s Aksum Bar for samosas, tea and a stark conversation about poverty, life and things. Odede leaves one with a feeling that you should have met him sooner.
What have you ever read about yourself and your work in the media and thought, “uhm, who is it that they are talking about?”
I’m relatively not known in Kenya. People only know me now when Shofco got in the news. But nobody knows where we came from and how difficult it has been. We are not a one-day success. Also, I’m very shy, so I avoid the media and focus on community work.
Every time I go to a conference, I get very nervous. I keep going to the bathroom. (Laughs). I don’t like attention much.
Where does that come from? The nervousness.
I stammered a lot as a boy. I also had a little voice. Girls made fun of me. (Chuckles) Because of the stammer, I decided to speak very fast to try to overcome it and it worked. Even when I stopped stammering, I could not stop speaking fast as you realise now. When things started happening in my life, and I started meeting people outside the slum, then I became aware of the class system which also dented me. I took a long time to heal. I became conscious of how I spoke English because I was used to my mother-tongue and Kiswahili, which we spoke in the slums.
Poverty made me aware that I belonged to a different world from the world of others who spoke good English. It was worse when I went to the US and met rich Kenyans at university. The deep wound of poverty followed me in the US.
I was afraid to tell people that I came from the slums. I would say ‘I’m from Kenya, Nairobi.’ I was hiding who I was. I thought if I said I was from the slum they would all run away. My girlfriend then — now my wife — told me, ‘You have to say where you are from, it’s who you are.’ So I started saying I was from Kibera and my world changed. People got curious. They wanted to know more. They were fascinated. This was a very prestigious college with Who’s Who’s relatives. Soon, former President Bill Clinton invited me to a big event to talk about my work in the slums with my bad English. (Laughs loudly)
What do you think is the biggest misconception of Kibera?
That Kibera belongs to one particular tribe. There are all tribes in Kibera. The problem is that middle-class Kenyans talk about Kibera but none has ever stepped in Kibera. Biko, have you been to Kibera? (Laughs) We comment on issues that affect Kibera so passionately when we have never taken time to visit. It’s easy to then have a misconception about a place you only read about.
You mentioned a phrase I liked, “the deep wound of poverty.” Does poverty ever heal completely?
(Pause) The wound is terrible. Some people who come out of poverty never want to associate with it; they try to live other people’s lives. They never want to talk about it. They fight it.
The thing I struggled with for a long time is people looking down upon me. But I didn’t sit in a corner, I fought back to show them that I was more than poor.
Poverty also affects your confidence. Back in the day, I would not walk into one of these big hotels to use the bathroom, I would be chased away because I was not confident. Poverty makes you invisible and powerless. Do you know when the poor people tell Kenyans that they exist? During elections. (Laughs) We go to the streets, we shout at you in your car, we want to show you that you might be driving a nice car but we also exist. You know what many middle-class take for granted? Networks. Poor people don’t have networks. Networks are powerful. But yes, poverty leaves a mark on you.
Are there elements of it that never leaves you, like a shadow, no matter how much money one makes or what posh suburb you buy a house in?
I read a lot. The guy that really inspired me was Bob Marley. Bob Marley was someone like me, he was from the hood. He became a powerful guy but he never changed. Wherever I go to, or whichever powerful man I stand next to, or wherever I live, Kibera always remains in me.
The thing that I really miss, and that makes me go to Kibera all the time, that we take for granted in Kibera, and what the middle-class don’t have, is community. There is no community in many places. When people make money, they lose it. That’s why I always go back to be a part of my community because this [waves hand around room] is not community.
I really love that. I don’t mean to be offensive to you or your wife, but I’m curious; do you think that in your course of community work, there are certain doors that only opened because your wife was white?
(Laughs) Biko, your stories! Let me tell you something about Jessica that nobody understands. She is a very strong woman. She will tell you that as a Garvist, a fan of Marcus Garvey, I always believed in Africa and in solving our own problems, against brain drain. I never knew I'd marry a white woman. There was a time I was a crazy rasta man. I met her and she looked at me differently, not like a poor man who everybody was looking down upon. I worked in a factory; I had one free Safaricom shirt. That was true love. Jessica has a white skin and a black heart. (Laughs) She believed in me and my work. She saw a future and a promise that I couldn’t see and had the language to express it. She was the one who talked to Wesleyan University about me and helped me get in. Has she helped me open doors? Yes.
What do you want for your son?
(Beaming) Oscar Garvey Odede. This child is very special. He will get everything I didn’t get as a child but mostly I want Oscar to carve his own path. I want him to be happy.
What is that? What is this happiness thing that people keep talking about?
Happiness for me is living your life with no pressure to be something or somebody. We have corruption in Kenya because people want to find happiness in money, in politics and in power.
What has to happen in your life for fear to occupy it?
(Pause) If you ask my wife that question she will laugh at you because she thinks I need more fear in my life. Our work is complicated; we rub powerful people the wrong way. My car has been shot at, I have been sent bullets in an envelope and my wife said, ‘We have to leave the country now.’ I asked her, why? I have seen my best friend killed by a mob, I have seen death many times, so I don’t fear. The kind of fear I have, though, is how to convince people that I'm doing something I truly believe in.