Odede ’12: From an African Slum to a Wesleyan Graduate

Lauren RubensteinMay 27, 201210min
Kennedy Odede '12 delivered the Senior Class Welcome during the 180th Commencement Ceremony on May 27. (Photo by Nick Lacy)

Kennedy Odede ’12 delivered the Senior Class Welcome during the 180th Commencement Ceremony May 27:

Today, I stand before you as the first person from Africa’s largest slum to graduate from an American university.
For most of my life, I never imagined that one day I would be standing here.
For me, Wesleyan is HOPE.

You, the class of 2012, and my time at Wesleyan have changed me forever.

I grew up in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, where more than a million people live in an area the size of Central Park—without sewage systems, roads, running water, or access to basic rights like health care and education.

I was the oldest of eight children in a family that could not afford food, much less school fees. In Kibera, I dreamed of many things: food to eat, clean water to drink, safety from the violence, and relief from oppression that surrounded me.

Today, I want to tell you three stories about hope.

One day when I was seven years old, my mom and I set out early in the morning with $3 in her pocket that we had saved over many months. My mother wanted to enroll me into an informal school in the slum. As we walked through Kibera, I went on about learning to read, growing up to be a teacher or a doctor, and my mom told me, gently, not to get my hopes too high.

When we reached the school, I was smiling from ear to ear, so excited about the bright future ahead. The principal told us that while they did have open spaces, the school fees were $10 per year—not $3. My mom, a woman of great pride, begged and pleaded but had no luck.

As we left, I saw the children playing in their bright school uniforms, and as I looked down at my torn clothes, tears began to stream down my face. I wanted to be them so badly—I saw opportunity in front of me but knew that I could not be part of it. My mom told me that she was sorry. She had tried her best.
Love gives us hope, and none of us got here today on our own. Throughout our journeys many people have shown us this kind of love and dedication—which in turn fuels the hope and love that we share with the world. Today my brother, sister and best friend came all the way from Kibera to celebrate with us. I want to thank them for being a part of my journey.

My second story.

When I was 18, I had a job in a factory. My work started at 7 and ended at 5, with a 2-hour walk each way. I could not afford the 10 cents needed for transport.
I performed hard labor—dangerous work-for $1.50 per day. One day I realized, this was going to be my whole life.

When I arrived home to the slum that evening, I was horrified to discover that my friend Alvin had hanged himself—tired of living a life confined to poverty with only one possible goal: survival.

This was a moment that changed me. I did not want to waste my life.
With twenty cents from my job, I bought a soccer ball and started a movement of young people fighting for social justice in Kibera. While I was growing this movement, I met a Wesleyan student studying abroad in Nairobi. She thought I should apply to a school I’d never heard of, and without knowing what would happen, I said yes!

I was awarded the Bob and Margaret Patricelli scholarship.

My mom was so sad to see me leave—but then I translated the cost of a scholarship to Wesleyan into the numbers of cows that you could buy for the same amount.

As you can imagine, it was a lot of cows. Then, she almost picked me up and put me on the plane herself.
When I first arrived at Wes, I was totally confused. Luckily—I met all of you at the freshman orientation.
I did not know how to work a printer, use a shower, and could not understand how money could be stored on a little piece of plastic known as “Wes Card.”

During the first week of classes, I would furiously sprint from class to the dining hall, determined to be the first in line. One day, a classmate saw me and asked, “Kennedy, why are you running?” I explained that I wanted to get there before the food got finished. He said, “Here the food doesn’t get ‘finished,’ Usdan is open until lunch time ends.” What struck me the most about the class of 2012 was the kindness exhibited in explanations like this. Never before in my life had I felt valued. I always felt that growing up poor was something to be ashamed of, and at first I was scared to talk about my past. But then the class of 2012 showed me this kindness on many occasions.

I had arrived at an incredible place.

I said yes, AND my life changed.

I believe we will only live in a better world if we are willing to take risks to make it a reality, only if we are willing to say

My fellow graduates, I hope that we continue to say YES today, tomorrow and throughout our lives.

Finally, when we dare to hope, we create more hope in the world, which is my last story.

In my freshman dorm room at 200 Church, I founded the nonprofit Shining Hope for Communities with the help of another Wes student, Jessica Posner. Through Shining Hope we built the Kibera School for Girls—the slum’s first tuition-free school for girls.

Shining Hope grew because the entire Wesleyan community embraced it: from my mentor Professor Rob Rosenthal, who first told me, in true Wesleyan fashion, that I should “go for it,” to every Wesleyan student who has ever bought a bracelet.

Wesleyan students, professors, faculty and alumni fueled this change in my community, and SHOFCO has grown to build a health clinic, clean water, and community services that will reach over 30,000 people this year.
Together we are building hope across the world.

My dream is to attend a Wesleyan commencement 13 years from now, and sit where our families are today, to watch a graduate of the Kibera School for Girls accept a Wesleyan diploma, proving yet again that it does not matter where you come from—only where you want to go.

Hope! This is ALL our stories.
Wesleyan took a chance NOT just on me, BUT on ALL of us.

Wesleyan took our hopes—both for ourselves and for the world—seriously. Wesleyan told us that these hopes matter, that they mean something. Our teachers have given us the knowledge to ensure that we keep these hopes alive, even when the world responds with cynicism and challenges.

With our Wesleyan education, our dreams have the power to shape our communities, bringing the world to life through us.
Class of 2012, as we graduate today, our hopes are officially unleashed.

Congratulations Class of 2012— or as we say in Kenya, hongera!

I want to ask my fellow graduates for a promise. Please repeat after me:

“Today I promise
To use my Wesleyan education
To champion hope throughout the world.”

Thank you.