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On Assignment: Couple's love story leads to life-changing school in Kenyan slum

By Chelsea Clinton
Rock Center Special Correspondent

In 2007, as Jessica Posner prepared for her junior fall semester abroad in Nairobi, Kenya, one of her mentors at Wesleyan University suggested she reach out to Kennedy Odede. Jess’s mentor had recently heard Kennedy speak at the United Nations about the challenges of growing up in Kibera and how he was organizing theater performances throughout the slum to educate people about gender violence and HIV/AIDS.  Kibera is one of the largest slums in Africa where approximately one million people live without roads, clean water, a sewage system or a single school or hospital.  Jess’s mentor could not have known that suggesting Jess reach out to a man born in Kibera and committed to improving the lives of Kibera’s residents would change Jess’s life and countless others in the years to come. 

Shortly after Jess first arrived in Nairobi, by far the furthest she had ever been from her hometown of Denver, Colorado, she emailed Kennedy asking if she could come to Kibera, to see his theater group perform and maybe even work with him.  Kennedy replied and asked for her resume. Wary of would-be slum tourists, Kennedy wanted to ensure, as he told me, that this newly-arrived American was, “serious.”  Kennedy’s curiosity about Jess’s motives is understandable.  Kennedy talked to me about how starting around the time Jess arrived, he began noticing advertisements for ‘slum tours’ that vowed, incongruously, to show people ‘the real slum’ without having to get ‘too dirty.’  Kennedy wanted people to work with him who didn’t mind “getting dirty,” and who were focused on “empowering people in the slums, not profiting off their misery.”  Jess sent Kennedy her resume, he saw she was serious and he said he could tell her heart “was in the right place.” When he walked her to the bus stop at the end of her first day in Kibera, he suspected he was already in love with her – and she suspected she was in love with him too.

A couple weeks after Jess starting working with Kennedy and his theater group, she showed up – unannounced – at the one-room home he shared with his mother and siblings in Kibera. With all of her stuff. Jess expected to move in, despite Kennedy having already dismissed the idea and even though they hadn’t even started dating yet.  Kennedy told Jess, “no outsider has ever lived here.”  Jess wanted to “understand Kibera better” and knew that if “she went in every day and then left at the end of each night to stay in a comfortable home,” she would always be an outsider.  Jess also didn’t want to be “another white person” who showed up and then left.  Kennedy told me that he didn’t know of another white person who had ever spent more than a night in Kibera, certainly no one who had ever moved in. 

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Jess and Kennedy at the school they founded in Kibera, the Kibera School for Girls.

Kennedy’s neighbors were shocked.  Jess and Kennedy both said that for weeks after Jess moved in, neighbors would knock on their door each morning to see if Jess was still alive – many people didn’t expect her to survive a day.  Jess didn’t tell her parents she’d moved to Kibera – she also didn’t tell them she was already developing deep feelings for Kennedy. 

Jess says they fell in love “naturally,” and that their love evolved from a good friendship.  When I asked her if she had an ‘aha’ moment – she said the first time Kennedy told her he loved her.  She was in the hospital battling malaria and was delirious.  Kennedy thought she was asleep.  He told Jess he loved her because he thought she wouldn’t remember!  She did remember, and she knew it wasn’t the malaria talking.   Jess recovered and then had to return home for her second semester.  She left Kenya not knowing if she’d come back, not knowing if her and Kennedy’s relationship would survive the distance.  Jess said she didn’t know how “it would all fit together.” Kennedy watched her leave and wrestled with many of the same questions.

Kennedy had always dreamed of getting a college education, even though he had never formally finished high school.  Kennedy had largely taught himself to read and write, though once he could read, he devoured books and once he could write, he wrote plays, poems, speeches.  When violence broke out after the Kenyan elections soon after Jess returned back to the United States, she saw an opportunity for Kennedy to come to the United States for college.  She repeatedly told me that Kennedy was the most amazing and inspiring person she’d ever met – and she knew that with the right education, he could be an even more effective leader for his community and for Kibera.  When we were talking, Jess frequently referred to Kennedy as a leader – a sentiment echoed when I was in Kibera and people would pass Kennedy and refer to him as ‘Mr. Mayor.’  Jess convinced colleges to take Kennedy’s late application; Wesleyan accepted him.  Kennedy wasn’t sure about leaving his community during such a turbulent time.  The “excitement” of his community about someone from Kibera going to college, and in the United States nonetheless, as well as the weight of his family’s and friends’ expectations finally persuaded Kennedy it was the right choice, for him and Kibera.

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Tiny handprints mark the wall that leads into the entrance of the school that for its young students and their families is often a refuge.

In August 2008, Jess and Kennedy arrived together at Wesleyan after spending the summer working and living together in Kibera.  At the beginning of her final year, Jess didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation.  Kennedy knew what he wanted to do – open a school for girls in Kibera.  Soon, Kennedy’s dream became her dream.  The summer after Jess graduated, she and Kennedy went back to Kibera and with $10,000 in grant money and Jess’s babysitting savings, they built a school for girls, hired teachers, found materials, took applications and opened the doors – all within a few months. 

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Three of the 100 girls who attend the Kibera School for Girls.

When Kennedy went back to Wesleyan for his sophomore year in 2009, Jess stayed in Kibera, dedicated to helping realize Kennedy’s vision for a school for girls and a community center in Kibera, built and shaped by the people of Kibera.  Jess said she felt like she had a family around her in Kennedy’s family and friends – and that most people already considered them to be married even though Kennedy hadn’t yet proposed.  Jess also was very focused on ensuring that people in Kibera and the people who would come to support the school in the U.S. and elsewhere knew that she was there working with and for Kennedy’s vision, not her own.

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Rock Center Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton meets students at the Kibera School for Girls.

Jess stayed in Kibera until Kennedy could join her after he graduated  in May of last year with honors from Wesleyan.  Less than a month after Kennedy’s graduation, Jess and Kennedy were married in Jess’s backyard in Denver, in a ceremony celebrating their Jewish and Luo traditions.  They postponed their honeymoon to rush back to Kibera to be with “their girls,” the 100 students at the Kibera School for Girls today and their community, the more than 30,000 people served by the employment center, health clinic, violence-against-women prevention programs and water tower associated with the school.  When I asked Jess if she could imagine her life any other way, she said, “No. I feel so lucky to get to work with somebody that I love and admire so deeply. I think Kennedy is the most amazing person I’ve ever met.”  When I asked her if Kenya and Kibera were now home, Jess didn’t hesitate.  She answered, “Yes, this is home.”  When I asked Kennedy whether he could imagine his life any differently, he shook his head in confusion – it clearly was a question he had not asked himself! Having had the privilege of spending so much time with Jess and Kennedy, it’s impossible to imagine one without the other – and inconceivable they would be living anywhere else or doing any other work than the work they’re doing, together, in Kibera.  

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The girls read a book about one of their favorite characters, Clifford the Big Red Dog.

Editor's Note: To learn more about the Kibera School for Girls, click here.