Fear Is an Ally: The Story of Kennedy Odede of Kibera, Kenya

Below is an excerpt of a post by Ellen Galinsky that originally appeared in the Huffington Post. You can read the piece in its entirety here. On May 27, a 27-year-old graduating senior at Wesleyan University from Kenya stepped onto the podium and delivered the commencement address. Kennedy Odede rallied the graduates, their families and the Wesleyan community by having them repeat with him, "I promise to promote the power of hope."

His is an extremely unlikely story. He is the oldest of eight brothers and sisters born and raised in Kibera, the largest slum in Africa. He was malnourished and almost died from malaria. As he teetered between life and death, he was left alone for hours as a time. As he writes in his blog:

My mom used leave me alone the whole day while she looked for odd jobs in the slums ...I was always hungry and sick and we had no money to do anything about it.

At seven, he learned an important life lesson from a fight he didn't have. Another kid in the school named Wycliffe taunted him, saying: "Stupid boy, you have a girls' voice!" Trembling with fear, a fear so powerful he likens it to malaria, he walked away to the disdain of the other children:

That moment taught me a lesson in my life about fear and loosing. I could have kicked Wycliffe easily -- I was much larger than him, and there's no doubt that my body could lay him flat.

But fear stopped him. But it also caused him to stop and think about fear itself:

If we perceive fear as loosing and shameful, we let it direct our actions...the fear is our enemy and destroys us.

From that experience, he learned to make fear his ally, a lesson that he continues to call upon:

I remind myself that fear is my ally -- it shows me how to be humble, how to think from other people's perspectives, and how to better face the challenges of everyday life.  It teaches me how I want to be, and what I need to do to get there.

When his 16-year-old sister was raped and became pregnant, he began to hold street theater shows to rally against violence. There he met Jessica Posner, a Wesleyan University student who had was spending her junior year abroad to work with this group. She also insisted on living in Kibera. In a New York Times' editorial, Nicholas Kristof writes:

Kennedy told Jessica of his dream to get an education, and Jessica nudged the Wesleyan admissions office into offering him a full scholarship -- even though he had never gone to formal school before.

But being at Wesleyan didn't stop him and Jessica, now his fiancé, from continuing to work on behalf of Kibera:

When I came to Wesleyan, achieving what I thought impossible, Jessica and I began to work together to make our dream of changing the options available to women a reality.Together, we co-founded a nonprofit, Shining Hope for Communities. We use an innovative, two-step community-driven model to combat gender inequality and extreme poverty. We link free schools for girls to holistic community centers that provide residents with the most essential services unavailable elsewhere.

His story tells us that we can learn life skills, like the ones I discovered are so essential in Mind in the Making, from "harsh street life education" as well as from great schools and loving parents. The skills that he mentions -- turning fear into an ally so one can take on challenges, seeing the world from other's perspectives, becoming self-directed, and being an ongoing learner -- transcend the environment. Let us all promote the power of hope!