Kennedy Odede is one of the most joy-filled people I’ve met.
He grew up in the Kibera slum in Nairobi. With his American wife, Jessica Posner, he created a school for girls and a community organization called Shining Hope for Communities, or SHOFCO, there.
My eldest son worked at the school a few summers ago, and I’ve gotten to know Kennedy’s mischievous laughter during his trips to the U.S.
But I just read “Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss and Hope in an African Slum,” the gripping book Kennedy and Jessica wrote together about their lives.
You meet somebody in adulthood, and you think the person you know is the one who was always there. But when I read about Kennedy’s childhood, it was like descending into some unexpected pit.
When Kennedy was 3 his cherished grandmother died after she was bitten by a rabid dog. The family moved to a Nairobi slum where they lived with constant hunger and complete poverty.
His drunken stepfather beat him constantly; when he was 5 the beating was so relentless, all the feces escaped from his body.
When he was 8, his best friend died, maybe of malaria. Driven by hunger, Kennedy once tried to steal a mango from the market. The crowd beat him savagely (this is how mob justice sometimes works in Kibera) and would have killed him if a stranger hadn’t intervened.
To survive he joined a street gang. He did some street crime, armed and unarmed. Driven by hunger, his best friend tried to steal a purse and was beaten to death by a mob. Another friend tried to rob a store with a toy pistol and was killed by the police. Kennedy found another friend; the friend hanged himself at age 17.
Kennedy briefly got to attend a church school, but the priest would lock him in a room and molest him each week. Two of his sisters were raped and impregnated.
During ethnic violence, four of his best friends were essentially castrated and left to bleed to death.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Reading all this I kept wondering: How did this delightful man emerge from this horrific childhood? In a future column I’ll describe the research on how some people survive trauma, but for now I’ll let Kennedy speak for himself. Here’s an abridged version of an email he sent me over the weekend:
”While I didn’t have food, couldn’t go to school, or when I was the victim or witness of violence, I tried to appreciate things like the sunrise – something that everyone in the world shares and can find joy in no matter if you are rich or poor. Seeing the sunrise was always healing for me, it was a new day, and it was a beauty to behold.
“There were times when my pain led me to do things I’m not proud of. I did drugs like sniffing glue and petrol. But eventually I learned a trick: Replace a negative addiction with a positive. I replaced my addiction to drugs and alcohol with an addiction to books, which also provided me a much needed escape.
“I grew to know that no situation lasts forever. I used to tell myself that even when the day felt dark, eventually the light would somehow come. Nothing is constant.
“For every bad person I encountered who hurt me and caused me suffering and pain, I also met a lot of good people. For the priest that abused me, I met a man of God who saved my life on the day I stole a mango and was almost beaten to death (he paid back the mango’s price and more).
“My mom taught me that while there is a God, that one God might be very busy, so we have to rely on the people we encounter in our life who become what she called ‘small gods.’
”As a child, I knew how much my mom loved me. She was often in hard situations herself, but I knew she believed in me, she thought I was special, and I never gave up because I knew how much my mom wanted for me, and how much her love for me often cost her (beatings from my stepdad, suffering herself).
“When I was on the streets as a child I thought of what my mom had told me, that no matter where I was in the world, if I could see the stars I should know that she could see them, too, and I felt her love always.
“Finally, SHOFCO saved my life and helped me to remain positive even when the worst happened. It made me feel not like a passive victim, but like I had agency and power to change what was happening in my community.
“I think starting SHOFCO also gave me a sense of the power of ‘ubuntu,’ feeling connected to a universal humanity.”