Kibera native champions girls’ education

On Tuesday, acclaimed Kenyan youth leader Kennedy Odede spoke on his experiences founding the Kibera School for Girls, the first tuition-free girls’ school in his hometown of Kibera, Nairobi.

Odede founded the Kibera School for Girls in his hometown to empower girls through education.
Odede founded the Kibera School for Girls in his hometown to empower girls through education. Photo courtesy of Bella Zanesco.

Odede, currently a senior at Wesleyan, started the school in 2009.

The founding of the Kibera School for Girls was primarily inspired by Odede’s personal experiences growing up in the impoverished slums of Kibera. As the oldest of eight children, Odede had to assume responsibility for his siblings at the age of 10 due to difficulties his parents faced in providing for the family. He learned early the strains that poverty can put on families desperately trying to provide basic necessities for children while simultaneously fostering their education. As a youth, Odede was also exposed to the ignoble treatment women in Nairobi received when trying to support their families.

“We were tired of seeing little girls of age seven trading their body for food,” Odede said. “Two of my sisters had to drop out of school after becoming teenage mothers. My father abused my mother and kept our family hungry. Resisting, my mother taught me about gender equity. Had she been able to go to school, my mother felt she would have been able to feed and care for her family.”

Inspired by his mother and two sisters, Odede sought to give the women of Nairobi better educational opportunities and, in turn, better opportunities to provide for their families economically. He hoped to provide them with an escape from their situations in the form of education.

“Kibera School was started by a long-standing motivation I had since childhood life – growing up in a community where women were not valued, and being close to my mom,” Odede said. “I had a dream to offer an alternative way of life, where women are also seen as valuable.”

The Kibera School was jumpstarted by another movement led by Odede, the Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) foundation. Starting with only 20 cents and a soccer ball, Odede initiated a movement to educate all community members not only about female empowerment, but also about AIDS, health and sanitation, soccer and microfinance. This movement became one of the largest community-run organizations in Kibera. At 18 years of age, Odede spearheaded the movement in 2004.

SHOFCO has expanded rapidly, receiving widespread recognition for its grassroots efforts. In 2010, SHOFCO came in first place in the Dell Social Innovation Competition and won the Do Something Award. The foundation has been featured on CNN and in Fast Company Magazine.

SHOFCO has been instrumental in changing local attitudes toward women as well as offering superior education to the community members of Kibera. In a broad sense, the organization’s goal is to create the future leaders of Kenya and combat gender inequality and extreme poverty throughout Africa.

At Wesleyan, Odede received overwhelming support for SHOFCO from the student body. “We started student groups and then received the support of small grants,” Odede said. The Wesleyan Class of 2009 was a particularly avid supporter of SHOFCO and Odede’s vision. Odede and co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Jessica Posner collaborated to found the Kibera School for Girls in 2009.At the Kibera School for Girls, all students receive an education, daily nourishment, a school uniform and school supplies. The student body is entirely made up of females, and these provisions help give the brightest and most at-risk girls in the area a chance at a strong education.

The school was constructed with the help of local community members and includes eight classrooms, an expansive library and a multipurpose room. The school also offers after-school programs and psychosocial support to prevent abuse and to give students the resources to cope with the unique set of issues they face.

Odede, currently 25, is in his senior year at Wesleyan, where he is working to obtain his undergraduate degree. Despite his geographical distance from the Kibera School, Odede still fills his responsibilities to the program. “I am constantly in touch with over 80 local staff who currently run the school,” Odede said.

“All our staff are from the community – either Kibera or another community in Nairobi,” he continued. “Sometimes I have to step out of class to take a call and answer a question, make sure a medical supply order goes through or [solve] anything else that comes up.”

After graduation, Odede plans to return to the Kibera School for Girls to resume a direct role in the program and continue to fight against discrimination and poverty in Nairobi.

“In a life filled with hopelessness, I saw hope – and I clung to it. I remain deeply touched and inspired by the supporters who have joined us, who believe in my vision, and who have helped us to bring hope to thousands,” Odede said. “Together, we are making another world possible.”