Growing up in Kibera, Kenya, the largest slum on the African continent, Kennedy Odede thought everyone lived in poverty. Once he realized this wasn’t the case, he became angry — but he quickly turned his frustration into productive change.
“Social change became a tool for me to channel that anger into something positive,” Odede told the organization Hearts on Fire.
He didn’t let his informal education stop him from aiming high. At the age of 18, he started a social justice youth movement with just 20 cents in his pocket. Through the movement, he met his future wife Jessica Posner, who was studying abroad in Kibera at the time. Posner encouraged Odede to apply to Wesleyan University in the US, where she went to school, and Odede ended up getting in — with a full ride, no less.
Fast forward to 2004, and while still at Wesleyan, the two founded the nonprofit organization Shining Hope For Communities (SHOFCO) with the vision to “build urban promise from urban poverty” by promoting education, gender equality, and clean water in Kenya’s slums. From helping women sell handmade goods on Etsy to providing scholarships that keep girls in school, SHOFCO is using bottom-up organizing to allow people to take on leadership positions and succeed.
Odede has always believed engaging the community is the best strategy to make a real difference, and education is a big component. Since only primary education is free in Kenya, SHOFCO has built schools for girls and offered achievement-based scholarships for children to attend high school outside of their slums — in some cases, in the US.
These days, Odede is focusing on expanding the SHOFCO Urban Network (SUN), a movement of connected urban slums that are empowering communities to advocate for themselves. SHOFCO provides SUN groups with spaces that can be used for educational purposes and where community groups can get together on a weekly basis. The network prioritizes promoting peace and encouraging collective action, providing structures to launch advocacy campaigns and peaceful protests. Currently, SUN operates in eight slums in Kenya, but SHOFCO is looking to have a wider reach throughout the country.
With SUN, Odede wants to support girls' growth by giving them the tools they need to use their education to become leaders. More than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa and don’t have the chance to reach their full potentials. Child marriage and teen pregnancy are the most common barriers. In 2018, President Kenyatta of Kenya responded to calls from Global Citizens and committed to increasing the allocation of Kenya’s budget for education from 17% to 30%, but the government has yet to follow through.
“I believe that a society that respects and values women and awards equal opportunities to them will not only be happier, but also flourish,” Odede said in a statement to Global Citizen.
Hadija Hussein, secretary of Kibera's Makina village SUN group, has seen the program positively impact her whole family. Her children received scholarships through SUN and without it, Hussein said she would not have been able to finance her children’s education.
Hussein’s group has a Group Savings & Loans program that collects donations of 500 shillings ($5 USD) each month to provide loans for a few people in the community.
“I think my community has definitely benefited from the scholarship program and the compensation programs,” Hussein said in a statement released by SHOFCO.
Odede’s organization aims to support youth at every stage of their life –– the SUN youth network services young people from ages 18 to 35. So far, the network has already brought together over 28,000 young people throughout Nairobi who have partnered on youth forums, clean-up initiatives, mentorship, and income-generating activities.
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If more young people continue flocking to slums in search of opportunities, Odede believes programs like SUN will ensure no one gets left behind. Kenya is experiencincing rapid growth, the city of Nairobi’s population more than doubled between 1986 and 2009, and the risks of youth unemployment and poverty are high due to a shortage of jobs and resources. Between 2019 and 2023, SHOFCO plans to expand SUN to reach 31 slums across all of Kenya’s major cities.
“As Africa continues to urbanize, and more young people like me migrate to the slums in search of hope, but only to be met with despair … together, we must transform the urban slums so that more young leaders like our girls might start a new course for their communities and for our rapidly urbanizing world,” Odede said.
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