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From Kibera to New York, who would have thought?

Tuesday February 5 2013

PHOTO | FILE Kennedy Odede.

PHOTO | FILE Kennedy Odede. 

By CARLOS MUREITHI [email protected]

Triza Wanjiku sits in the midst of two counsellors. She has just come from a police station, where she sought a P3 form, the mandatory police medical report courts of law require from assault victims. In this case, Triza is seeking justice for attempted defilement.

“A few days ago, my drunken stepfather tried to molest me,” she says. He kicked a lamp shade, grabbed her and tried to remove her tights, but she escaped. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to her, she says.

The following morning, she reported the matter to Gender Office of Shining Hope for Communities, a local NGO, and counsellors there advised her on the legalities of the matter.

The story of Shining Hope for Communities, Triza’s only hope for justice, is intertwined with that of Kennedy Odede, a 28-year-old community organiser. He points out the house that he grew up in the Gatekwera area of the slum, where the organisation is based, as he explains how an unfortunate series of events led him to found the NGO.

“One of my best friends was shot dead after being involved in crime,” he recalls. Later on, another friend of his would commit suicide, and his sister raped. There were many negative things in Kibera and, by the age of 10, Odede, who was the oldest of eight children, had become a street child.

But change knocked on his door when a foreigner gave the young Odede books by Marcus Garvey and Martin Luther King; works of literature that started to shape his life.

“My grandparents and parents were poor,” he says. “If I hadn’t done something worthy with my life, I would have ended up the same way. I reckoned we had the human potential to do something for our sisters and mothers who go through a difficult time.”

From his Kibera house, he took up many societal jobs, including HIV and Aids counselling. His young organisation started health, sports and theatre departments that reduced the toils of slum life.

Odede’s life changed for the better in 2007, when he met a student from an American institution, the Wesleyan University. She suggested that he applies for a scholarship from the school. Fortunately, he was offered the Bob and Margaret Patricelli scholarship to study Government and Sociology.

“I was always of the opinion that attaining higher education would improve my community work,” says Odede, who taught himself how to read.

While in the US, he and co-founder Jessica Posner, who is now his wife, built the Kibera School for Girls. The initial entrants are now in Class Four, and the organisation has expanded to have a health clinic, clean water, and community services.

Their work has been appreciated globally.

In April 2011, Kennedy was invited to speak on a panel with former US President Clinton and actor Sean Penn at the closing plenary of the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U) Conference.

“This is kind of a breakthrough in Kibera — what you’re doing for young girls and women. It’s a breakthrough that has to be done everywhere,” former US President Bill Clinton told Odede at the conference.

“Him (President Clinton) saying that meant a lot to me because it showed that, with hope, things can work,” recalls Odede, whose Shining Hope for Communities won the Dell Social Innovation Challenge in 2010.

Last year, Odede delivered the commencement address before his graduating class at Wesleyan University, urging his fellow graduands to “champion hope throughout the world”.

By providing essential health care, education, sanitation, nutrition and computer training, Odede is integrating a holistic solution to urban poverty. The main challenges here are urbanisation, and Kenyans are not involved as much as they should in local projects.

“There is so much momentum... so many great things happening, but there is a lot of need at the same time. The problem is trying to balance these,” says Jessica Posner.

Odede splits his time between Nairobi and New York, organising fundraisers and doing strategic work while maintaining the organisation’s networks.

Women are the backbone of society, but in marginalised communities such as Kibera, they suffer a lot. Organisations such as Odede’s bring hope because, through helping women, optimism is brought to entire communities.

This is just one of the facets of Shining Hope for Communities, founded in 2004 to educate and empower girls while helping to change societal attitudes toward women by providing services to the society as a whole. Its 120 employees serve about 36,000 people from Kibera and its environs.

One of its first initiatives was The Kibera School for Girls, which provides tuition free of charge and provides free meals, school uniforms, and educational supplies to girls.

Today, 10-year-old Eunice Akoth recites a poem in the school’s hall: “Every mighty king was once a crying baby... and every great tree was once a tiny seed,” she reminds us.

The Class 4 student lives in a nearby area called Raila. She likes this school because it provides free education while her teachers are willing to help anytime.

Next to the school is a bio-latrine centre. Called the Toilet Access Project, it builds sanitary toilets throughout Kibera. Each serves at least 150 people.

A small farm referred to as Gardens for Growth provides healthy and sustainable food for the pupils, while the Johanna Justin-Jinich Community Clinic serves more than 220 patients per day and, in addition to primary health care, offers free programmes that focus on women and children’s health.

“Health is a big issue in Kibera, particularly because of the mess created by cheap, unregulated clinics,” says Richard Nthiwa, a clinical officer at the community clinic. He adds that most people who come for treatment suffer from upper respiratory tract infections and waterborne diseases.

Shining Hope also sells clean water to around 2,000 households per day.