Find Me Unafraid: A Story of Love, Loss, and Hope is the remarkable story of two young people from different worlds and cultures. Jessica Posner, a native of Denver, Colo., was a student at Wesleyan University who wanted to experience another part of the world. In 2007, she traveled to Kenya. There, in one of the largest slums in Africa, she met Kennedy Odede, the unofficial “mayor of Kibera,” and their lives became intertwined in a humanitarian adventure. Armed with a book by Martin Luther King Jr. and a 20-cent soccer ball, Odede started a movement called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) to help his hometown, which Posner embraced. Together, they built and organized the Kibera School for Girls and later a community clinic. Odede also enrolled at Wesleyan, graduating in 2012 and delivering the commencement address. The couple married in June 2012, and their book was published in 2015. Find Me Unafraid was chosen as Coastal Carolina University’s 2016 Big Read for incoming freshmen, and the couple spoke to 2,300 students at CCU’s New Student Convocation in August, challenging them to make a difference in their world. During their campus visit, Mona Prufer of CCU’s Office of University Communication interviewed the couple about their inspiring story.
How are things going with your school and health centers in Kenya?
Odede: Great. We’ve expanded a lot. We’re now operating in two urban slums, Kibera and Mathare. We’ll reach more than 120,000 individuals this year through the school, health programs and other services, including clean water. It’s been really exciting. The school is pre-kindergarten through the seventh grade.
Is it difficult to sustain these initiatives you started?
Posner: Yeah, we’re always fundraising. Our hopes are to be able not just to maintain, but to grow—to take the models that work for us and scale them up to reach more communities.
Is this your first Big Read experience?
Posner: Yes, this is the first, although UNC-Charlotte is also doing it for their Big Read and as well as a few other schools.
One of the most disturbing aspects of your story, Kennedy, was the high incidence of rapes of girls in Kibera and the lack of justice within the “judicial system.” Has that changed or been addressed through the improvements you have initiated?
Odede: Working through the community, we now have a department that deals with the gender violence. It was started by a parent whose daughter was abused. There used to be only one police doctor to work on rape cases, but now we have three. We do a lot of community education. The judicial system is indeed a challenge.
You have both exhibited impressive acts of bravery, risking your lives in defiance of the ruling authorities to achieve your goals. Where does that come from, and how do you advise others to address their fears?
Posner: I think part of it is just not taking no for an answer. When something seems impossible, you figure out a way around it. I guess I just don’t believe that anything is impossible.
Odede: Mine is [a result of] exposure to a very tough life at a very early age. There’s nothing unique about me. I grew up in violence, in the street. My mother has been a strong influence, encouraging me to keep strong despite all thechallenges.
How has your life changed since publication of this book?
Odede:Good food! Good showers! [laughs] For me, it’s been very humbling. The effect of coming here to Coastal Carolina University today and finding that the students know all the details of my life, even down to my dog Cheetah—it touches my heart. It makes me feel I have done something with my life despite my struggles. People have been touched by our work, they are writing us messages. Everybody has a gift, and that gift can be useful as something positive. The book makes me feel like we are able to share some light with the world.
Posner:When you’re writing it, you don’t see the impact it could have on other people. It is a huge honor to get to share our story in this way, and humbling to see it has deeply resonated with people and hopefully opened their mind’s view and changed their perspective on life.
Describe your collaborative process in writing this book.
Odede: We wrote our parts separately. The hard part was how to put it together, but Jessica did that magic. She put the pages on the floor and gave it an outlook and a shape it didn’t have at the start of the process.
It might be said of you, Kennedy, that a book lifted you out of poverty, in the sense that a book about Martin Luther King Jr. stirred you to action. How important are books to you?
Odede: For me, I see books as a human being. Books as breathing, books as talking to me. Books really changed my life. I stay very busy, but I always engage with books.
What advice would you give students who want to make a difference in the world?
Posner: I would say start small. Problems, especially in today’s complex world, can be so overwhelming. If you look at the whole thing, you can feel like there’s nowhere to start. So start somewhere, even if it’s small. Even one step makes a big difference. There’s a homeless person, and most people drive past. Why can’t you be the one who stops?
Odede: We are here on Earth with purpose. We have to find that purpose. It’s not always easy, it is a process. But as you work on the process, there is always something you can do for humanity. Maybe you meet someone, and you can possibly change their life. You don’t have to wait. Wherever we are, we can do something positive.
Kennedy, you had no formal education and taught yourself to read from discarded newspapers in the street. Now you’ve had two op-eds published in The New York Times. How does that make you feel?
Odede: The first op-ed was due to a professor [at Wesleyan]. I wrote a piece about slum tourism in a class, and the professor asked my permission to submit it to a newspaper. I thought he was talking about a small paper. I said ‘Sure, professor.’ Then I get an email from The New York Times? I said, ‘What? The New York Times? You are kidding me!’ But at the same time I felt: do not look down on the slums, do not look down on anybody. I have experience, which I lived through. The Times just gave me space to share it with the world. Most of us get overlooked. People don’t care about us. That reminded me how important this opportunity is to share with the world. Most poor people, if they have an opportunity at an early age, they could end up becoming doctors, lawyers, professors. But if we wait too long [to lift them out of poverty], the opportunity is lost.
For more information about Shining Hope for Communities, visit www.shofco.org.