A lot of college students want to save the world, but few move to the places that need it most to make a difference.
When Jessica Posner (now Jessica Posner Odede), an American college junior six days into her study-abroad term in Nairobi, met Kennedy Odede, a 23-year-old social activist and Kenyan, he was skeptical.
He’d watched Westerners come and go, staying long enough to snap photos of his home–the slum Kibera–and leer at the feces and rats lining the streets. “Slum tourism turns poverty into entertainment, something that can be momentarily experienced and then escaped from,” he wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times in 2010. “People think they’ve really “seen” something–and then go back to their lives and leave me, my family and my community right where we were before.” What made Jessica so different?
“I insisted on moving into the slum,” she says, something no other visitor had ever done. “I did not want to be an outsider–someone who worked in the slum during the day and went back to a comfortable homestay at night.”
She and Kennedy bonded over his work in Kibera and his social activism movement, Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). In that semester, they fell in love and dreamed of someday starting a tuition-free school for girls in Kibera.
Two years later, they founded the Kibera School for Girls, the first free primary school for girls in Kibera. Today, they have over 200 students from pre-K to sixth grade, with a second school recently opened in neighboring Mathare. They married in 2012.
Before opening the first school, Kennedy had gone to America to study at Wesleyan, and the two kept pondering their Kiberan school. In the meantime, they won a grant from Newman’s Own Foundation for $10,000, as seed money for building the school and admitting their first class of students. The lack of steady funding motivated them to keep pushing, and more grants followed.
But their greatest challenge, Posner Odede says, was initial buy-in for the school’s model. “We aimed to do something radical: take the poorest, brightest girls and give them a top-notch education, capping each class at 20 students,” she says. “Some people have questioned our vision along the way, believing that in a place like Kibera, where so many children could not afford to attend school, it would be most worthwhile to build an average-quality school that could serve as many students as possible.”
They knew their girls could do better than average. They aimed to do more than educate: They’d create a “generation of leaders who can prove that being from Kibera is not a life sentence of poverty.”
Each grade now has 40 students speaking fluent English, and scoring first in the district on government tests for high school, Posner Odede says. The value of the entire ecosystem goes up as more girls are educated and empowered, with programs on health care, sanitation, and clean water. The whole community participates in the success of these girls.
Odede’s pull as a part of the community is powerful to this buy-in process. Self-worth and pride are huge in the transformation the slum is undergoing; instead of being seen as needing help from wealthy, far-away places, they’re helping themselves and their neighbors.