Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum
October 15, 2015
Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner have written a tale of loss and hope, of compassion, education, and development, all wrapped up in a beautiful love story.
Growing up in Rockford, Illinois, in the late ’70s, I think I was a little too young to fully understand what was starting to happen when the factory that employed my father closed its doors, leaving an already struggling city with one less place of opportunity for gainful employment. By 1980, my parents had four young boys to care for, and Rockford had become a city that offered very little hope or security for a family of six on one modest household income. After trying to hold on there for a few more years, our family left the struggling midwestern city for a small dairy farm in southeastern Wisconsin. That sounds idyllic, but the farm had certainly seen better days, and we were there on a work-for-rent arrangement. My mother, a born and bred farm girl, was able to milk cows and do farm chores in exchange for free rent on the second floor of an old farm house, while picking up odd jobs and helping local farmers harvest crops for extra income. My father was able to find work driving a truck for an uncle who owned a small lumber yard in the town closest to our almost broken-down farm, and he was eventually able to find more lucrative work as a computer programmer in yet another factory. We’d see the struggles and hear the fighting, wondering what was causing this disturbing ripple within our tight-knit family unit. In those lean years, unhappiness had infiltrated our household. We loved our parents, and in the consequent years of growing up, we began to learn that they loved us more than anything in the world and would—indeed did—do everything to make sure we were safe and cared for. And despite the ongoing struggles, we were taught to be courteous and polite, to always work hard, given every opportunity, to always encourage to try something new and to succeed at whatever path we chose. Thus, at that time in the early 1980s, living in a dilapidated farmhouse in a new and unfamiliar place, my brothers and I never felt poor.
I am now 40 years old and have never traveled outside of the continental United States—have never stepped foot in a foreign country—so my vision of what worldwide poverty is has always been seen through the narrow prism of that farmhouse (and, I suppose, the occasional episode of Hill Street Blues or Save the Children infomercial). Going on twelve years at 800-CEO-READ, the books that have come across my desk have not only widened that scope to let new light in, they have also given me a deeper admiration for people who stand up to try to help those in far worse predicaments than our family was in when I was a child.
A sincerely wonderful man, and incidentally the Vice President and Associate Publisher at HarperCollins, Craig Young, introduced to me to an organization that prompted memories of those times on the farm and gave me a great opportunity to work with the team at Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) over the past month. SHOFCO was founded by Kennedy Odede, a young man from Kibera, a sprawling Kenyan slum in Nairobi, and not only the largest slum in the city, but the largest urban slum in all of Africa. After years of struggle and hardship, Kennedy and a small group of friends, equipped with only with 20 cents and a soccer ball, a pencil and a list of challenges that their people endured, set out to start a youth group that would have a profound and lasting impact on the Kiberan slum and its children.
Years later, Jessica Posner, a student from Wesleyan University, upon hearing of Kennedy’s work, chose to join him in Nairobi and help the SHOFCO cause. When Jessica began communicating with Kennedy via email from Denver, Colorado, she didn’t know much of the conditions in Kibera. Immediately upon her arrival in Africa, she realized that Kibera was a city within a city and a world unto itself, within which no one knew how many people actually lived. Some estimates have over a million people living within a space equivalent to Central Park. It’s an area of houses made of tin and cardboard with no power or running water, no governmental programs, and an often terrifying environment for Kibera’s young girls, which led to their innovation of “linking girls’ education to deeply-needed community-wide services” and social change.
And, instead of staying on the other side of tracks in a much more comfortable part of Nairobi, Jessica insisted on moving in with Kennedy in his small one-room shack, and thus began a close, beautiful partnership that would change their lives, the lives of Kibera’s girls, and thereby the lives of all residents of Kibera forever.
In their new book, Find Me Unafraid, Kennedy and Jessica share this wonderful story, a story about courage, struggle, injustice, opportunity, and, above all else, love.
I first became aware of Kennedy and Jessica in the brilliant book A Path Appears, so it was no surprise to see the Foreword written by that book’s author, Nicolas Kristoff. He appropriately sets the tone for what ends up being one of the most remarkable stories I’ve read in recent years. As Kristoff writes:
SHOFCO is a love story, but it’s also a lesson in development.
It is a striking combination. In our business we don’t often see books that teach us about development through the lens of a love story, a love story that gets right to heart of the struggle, of what Kennedy endured over his lifespan to get to where he is today. It’s a sometimes heartbreaking story, and Kennedy dives right in in the first sentence of the book’s Prologue:
The wall of discarded milk cartons is the only barrier between me and the gunfire outside. … The entire slum is holding its breath, waiting for this rain of bullets to pass, like any other storm.
It was gunfire that he knew was ultimately looking for him, and looking to end his life for political reasons.
Unlike most of the books that end up on our shelves, Find Me Unafraid has no traditional chapters, easy lessons, or steps to success. Rather, each chapter alternates between authors, telling the stories that brought them together and to a particular point in their lives. As I read through the beginning chapters detailing Ken and Jess’s backstory, it was inspiring to see two people from, as Jessica details, literally “different side of the tracks” and really different sides of the world, embark on an often difficult journey of truly helping those people who are forced to make a very difficult choice. As Kennedy tells Jessica early on in their initial relationship:
There are two ways of escaping poverty. One, you can use drugs, get drunk—escape. Or you can escape into the world of books; that can be your refuge.
Being part of a long-running independent book business, those words rang out loud and clear—and resonated deeply. When I moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1995, I spent a few years on a similar path, trying to simply survive, find myself and my way in the world, and find something that would once again remotely reflect and connect me to the teachings and values that my parents tried to instill in us boys as children. In the first few months of living in the biggest city I’d ever called home, the people who embraced my lost nature were a group of individuals my age who were interested in progressing a socially-conscious hip-hop movement, and another group of folks who found solace working in a small local bookstore on Downer Avenue, the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop (which was, at the time, our parent company). Both understood the changing nature of the political and economic structures that had begun to swallow working- and middle-class America, and the majority of them had Kennedy Odede’s mindset: simply trying to make a small difference in the communities that meant so much to them, having faith in its people. A lot of us were struggling at the time, but struggling to try to do better for each other. It is a sentiment that is still prominent in our modern-day American (perhaps sub-) culture, especially during and since the Great Recession, when so many have had to pull together just to make ends meet.
Even though most of the circumstances that Kennedy details throughout the book are on a much deeper, more desperate and despairing level of struggle, the underlying sentiment of what Kennedy would learn after finding the wisdom of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is ringing as loud as ever in the current economic state of the world. Upon receiving a copy of MLK’s Testimony of Hope, Kennedy goes on to write:
I couldn’t put this book down. What America had passed through reminded me of what I was living through in the slum. No matter where you are from, the struggle was the same. In America it was about race. If you were black, you were invisible just because of your color. Here it was about class. Class was the issue. Because I was poor, I was invisible. When you were poor in Kenya, nobody helped you get justice.
In many cases, the people who can make this statement about themselves choose the escape. Kennedy had a multitude of occasions in which he could have escaped or become another statistic, but instead, with unbreakable determination and a stubborn woman by his side, he and Jessica pressed forward to give people a better life.
Like Kennedy reading MLK, I couldn’t put this book down, but as easy as it was to turn the pages without pause, this story is one that is difficult to tell other people without writing a small book in itself. Every single page of this book is crucial to Jessica and Kennedy’s story. There is no filler. I want to tell you the stories about Kennedy and the hardships of being a streetboy, the horrifying stories that Kiberan teenage girls confide to Jessica, Jessica almost dying from malaria, Kennedy being forced to flee Kibera or die if he stayed, and the letter Jessica writes that would eventually aid in his enrollment at Wesleyan University. I want to share how much I giggled at Kennedy experiencing America for the first time. The admiration I have for Jessica for never running away or backing down from a situation most wouldn’t even consider in the first place. The joy I felt in my heart when they received their first grants from the 100 Projects for Peace and the Newman Foundation, both of which helped transform SHOFCO into what it is today. The only justice I can do in sharing their beautiful story is to convince everybody I know to simply read every single word in this book for themselves.
Reflection isn’t something I’ve been overly prone to over most of my lifespan. This story thankfully caused me pause and encouraged me to think back to the path of my own life and to really appreciate where it has lead me to. I’m not going to compare my story to the people who live in my neighborhood who are growing up in similar conditions to Kibera. Our family struggle when we were young was short-lived because my mother and father had that same determination these authors had to make a difference, and it was isolated on a small farm in the middle of America—not amidst the most concentrated poverty in Africa. Kennedy Odede was alone on the streets amidst that poverty by the time he was ten years old. My parents made it their priority and mission to give us kids a better life, and in the process and in many ways, sacrificing their own. I haven’t always made the best choices in my journey through life. I never finished college. I still haven’t seen the world outside of the United States. However, I’ve never stopped fighting and trying to do better. I work for a wonderful company that gives me the opportunity to share these words with you, and whose mission is to help people through the power of books and ideas. I’ve got the best family anyone could ever ask for, and I try to make them proud every day. My future wife and stepson bring more joy to my life than I could possibly ask for and drive me to be a better man.
When I closed this book, I remembered back to where it started, with Kristoff’s words—this is “a love story”—and those words and this book reminded me how powerful love can be. It’s saved my life, broke my heart, made me weak, and has been shared with many beautiful people. And at the end of each day, it is what gives me hope and a sense of purpose, and I owe Kennedy and Jessica a world of gratitude for reminding me of that.