The love between Kennedy Odede, 31, and Jessica Posner, 29, is so effortless and palpable, it is unbelievable how far apart their worlds were before they met almost nine years ago.
Jessica’s journey from Denver, USA, to Gatwekera in Kibera, started with an email to Kennedy in 2007, requesting to work as a volunteer at his organisation, Shining Hope for Communities (Shofco), which he had initiated when he was only 15.
His aim was to make a positive change in his community, no matter how small.
Jessica had learned about his organisation through a friend that had visited Kenya six months earlier.
“Send me your CV,” was Kennedy’s swift response to her email.
Unperturbed but slightly surprised that her offer to volunteer her services was met by a request for her CV, Jessica, then 21, sent it anyway.
Kennedy laughs at the memory.
“I was a Garvey-an,” he explains, referring to Marcus Garvey, a Jamaican political leader who was a staunch proponent of the Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism movements.
“I did not want to rely on a mzungu for help, since I believed Africans can solve their own problems. I thanked her for offering to volunteer, and then went ahead to explain that Shofco was looking for skills that would add value to us,” he adds.
It turned out that Jessica, then a student of theatre studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, had the experience and education to match what was needed.
Once Kennedy accepted her application, she requested to put up with him and his family in Kibera during her volunteer period, to which Kennedy responded with a resounding no.
“I insisted. My reasoning was that if he could live there, why couldn’t I? I don’t accept no for an answer,” explains Jessica with a smile.
He wrote back that he lived a very modest life and could not imagine her surviving without running water or electricity.
He was referring to the single room he rented in Kibera, and which he shared with his seven siblings.
Jessica was unperturbed though, and insisted on living with him, even after her first visit to the room he called a home.
“I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” she admits.
The stark reality hit her when she moved into Kennedy’s single room and had to bathe in a bucket in the cramped room.
“I was trying to take a shower in a bucket and realised I had no idea how I would cope in an environment that had no running water!” she says.
Meanwhile, Kennedy’s neighbours and friends were having fun at his expense.
“They kept knocking at my door, and when I opened, they would ask me whether the mzungu I lived with was still alive,” adds Kennedy, laughing at the memory.
The two are now married, and have been for four years. The organisation that brought them together, as well as their marriage, has moved from strength to strength, despite the glaring differences in their backgrounds.
Kennedy Odede and his wife Jessica Odede take a walk in Kebera, where their love was born, on January 26, 2016. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
THEIR DIFFERENT CHILDHOODS
Born in Denver in 1986, as the first-born child in a family of three children, she grew up in a beautiful house in Denver, her days spent playing with her siblings, and never wanting for anything.
“It was a happy childhood, a privileged one. I went on to a public school and eventually to a good college.”
Kennedy’s was a difficult childhood
He realised that his life was different from that of many others when he was around six.
He was rummaging through a dustbin for food in the nearby Lang’ata Otiende with his friends when it hit him that there was a world beyond Kibera that existed, one where people had so much food, that they could afford to throw it away.
The poverty that he and his family experienced when he was growing up in Kibera was so engulfing, that even their poor neighbours thought they were too poor to mix with them or their children.
A neighbour once forcefully pulled down their clothes from the line and stomped on them, claiming they would transfer lice and fleas to their clothes.
His mother could hardly afford to buy water, let alone soap, and so they would often fetch water from an open sewer, which his mother would try to filter using sand.
Kennedy Odede and his wife Jessica Odede have moved from strength to strength, despite the glaring differences in their backgrounds.. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
Amidst this extreme poverty though, Kennedy hoped that things would one day change for the better.
A young Kennedy, wise beyond his years, with an extraordinary curiosity, hopefulness and eagerness for learning, but whose parents could barely afford to feed him, let alone educate him, implored his neighbour and childhood friend to teach him all that he had learned in school.
Most evenings, the young boy became Kennedy’s teacher, teaching him how to count and read, just as he had been taught in school, and sharing his homework with Kennedy. This is how he learnt basic reading and writing.
Eventually, his hope turned into despair, which saw him take to the streets and join a gang of boys who, among other things committed petty crimes. He was 10 at the time.
“I became an angry child, I smoked bhang, sniffed (shoe) glue and stole from people when begging did not work,” he says.
His mother, who was dealing with her own struggles, let him be. He called the streets home for three years.
It was not until his best friend died in the hands of a mob that Kennedy decided to leave the streets for good.
Kennedy and Jessica Odede with their workers doing their routine chores at Kibera School for Girls on January 26, 2016. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
He started by volunteering to wash dishes and wait on customers in a certain food kiosk in Kibera in exchange for food. It was while here that he met a priest, a bright light in his otherwise dark life.
“I used to pinch my nose and mimic a ‘white man’. He was amused at my antics, and would often seek me out and we would chat. Eventually, he offered to sponsor my secondary school education.”
He struggled to catch up with his classmates, having had no formal education thus far, and with the priest’s encouragement, eventually caught up.
He, however, did not complete his secondary school education as his sponsorship was cut short when the priest left the country.
By then, he was so passionate about acquiring knowledge, he always had a book with him. He favoured books on personalities such as Marcus Garvey, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, which were donated to him by another priest, who recognised his passion for reading.
He took on manual jobs to make ends meet, and would often walk all the way from Kibera to work in Industrial Area, in the outskirts of Nairobi.
He knew that he could no longer continue living like that when he found a friend’s lifeless body hanging from a rope in his house, with the suicide note saying he was tired of his desolate life.
Inspired by the various books he had read, especially Marcus Garvey’s ideologies, he convinced a group of his peers that they did not need money to make a positive difference in their community.
That simple acts such as cleaning the streets, collecting garbage or protecting their mothers and sisters did not require money.
It was from this that the Shofco movement was born, attracting international attention only four years after its inception and earning Kennedy an invitation to speak at the World Social Forum.
He received Jessica’s email about wanting to volunteer soon after this.
“I thought she was insane to want to come here, but after I saw her, I was thankful for that email - there was an immediate spark between us. It was as if we had known each other for years. I admired her boldness and bravery, and I can tell you that her determination has gotten us through so much,” says Kennedy.
“I’m coming,” was Kennedy’s response on the phone one-and-a-half hours after he had promised to pick up Jessica from the Adams Arcade stage along Ngong road.
Slightly miffed, she wondered why her host was late to pick her up.
Later, she learned that Kennedy had no bus fare to get him to their meeting point from his place of work, and had decided to walk.
He walked with her through Kibera for the next two days with her hand firmly tucked in his.
“It’s Kenyan culture to hold hands,” he had explained it away when she asked why he insisted on holding her hand.
She was not convinced that this was the case though.
“I asked around about this Kenyan culture, which he had assured me was all it was, but was told no such thing existed,” Jess remembers with a laugh.
So why did she trust a man she had just meet, enough to move into his single room?
“I am a very instinctual person. I just had a good feeling about him,” says Jessica with a gentle smile.
Kennedy knew he liked her from the beginning, but despite sharing a room for a month, it wasn’t until Jessica fell ill with malaria and he was gripped with the fear of losing her that he revealed his feelings.
Jessica was admitted at the Nairobi hospital, where she spent a week drifting in and out of consciousness. Kennedy would walk from Kibera to the hospital daily to visit her.
“Seeing her lying there, I thought I was going to lose her before I told her how I felt. One day, when I was sure she was asleep, I whispered into her ear: ‘I love you, Jessica’ and then ran out of the hospital and went back home, just in case she heard me,” says Kennedy, laughing at the fond memory.
“I was feverish and was hallucinating, so I was not sure whether his telling me he loved me was a dream or not, so I decided to ask him whether I had been dreaming or if he had actually told me that he loved me.”
When he admitted he had, she says she was “a bit overwhelmed” but thankfully, shared the same sentiments. And hence the start of their unique relationship.
Kennedy Odede and his wife Jessica Odede during the interview on January 26, 2016. PHOTO | ROBERT NGUGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP
GOING BACK HOME
Jessica’s semester abroad ended two months later, and she travelled back home, pretty sure that the romance was over, convinced that a long distance relationship would be unsustainable.
They still kept in touch though, which is how she learnt about the post-election violence in 2008.
Jessica rallied her friends and family, and managed to get enough money to help him travel to Tanzania.
Later on, she implored upon several universities in the US to admit this brilliant young man who only had a few years of formal education, a man she loved.
Jessica’s family has been fully supportive of their relationship, even if hers is the first interracial relationship in the Jewish family.
“My grandparents had a more difficult time accepting it because they come from a different generation, but they eventually came around,” says Jessica.
Jessica is also well-loved by her in-laws.
Kennedy’s father grilled Jessica – he wanted to know about her intentions with his son, and once satisfied with her answer, he gave them their blessings.
“Once he gave us his approval, his only question was how he would take cows to Denver!” quips Jessica.
Kennedy, who graduated with a degree in sociology from Wesleyan University, where he is a trustee, used his leadership skills to rally support for the Shofco movement back home, support that was encouraging, support that has kept the organisation going.
One is tempted to ask what Jessica saw in Kennedy, a man who had almost nothing to his name, a man whose background was a complete opposite of hers.
“Kennedy is the love of my life, you can’t help who you love, and when I met him, I realised he was a visionary, and that his dream was so big, that Shofco was just the beginning. I am lucky that he gave me this opportunity to be part of this dream,” says Kennedy.
“When I met Jessica, I did not have the courage to approach a woman. My clothes were old and tattered and I smelled of sweat due to all the walking and manual labour. Besides, when you cross over to the other side of Kibera, the women speak in English, and I was not confident at all to speak it. When I started Shofco, it became my wife, I was fully invested in it,” he says.
“He is so brave and does not know what impossible means. When he has an idea, he makes it happen. He doesn’t stop, he doesn’t blink or hesitate, he moves! He has also remained humble despite all his achievements, and does not take his family’s love for granted,” Jessica adds.
“I believe in humanity. I’ve come to accept that the beauty of life is not what we own, but what we have inside us - humility, love, family, friends and touching others people’s lives positively,” says Kennedy.
They plan to start a family soon. Currently, they live with Kennedy’s youngest sibling, Hillary, who calls them dad and mum. He is 10.