Kennedy Odede’s Tribute to Nelson Mandela

Image via NY Times

Kennedy Odede ’12, President of Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO) and accomplished rapperwrote a powerful tribute to South African anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, who passed away on December 5. In the piece, Odede writes about how Mandela inspired him during his childhood in Nairobi’s Kibera slum:

I had many conversations with Nelson Mandela, although I had not met him.

In my family’s tiny shack in Nairobi’s Kibera slum, my one-way exchanges with the great man kept me going. Mandela survived 27 years of prison; maybe I would make it out, too.

Mandela became South Africa’s first black president in 1994, when I was 10 years old. In Kibera, people celebrated and talk circulated the streets about this man, but I didn’t see how his story connected to mine until much later. I was struggling too hard simply to survive.

One of the great works that would hugely influence Odede’s thinking was Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom”:

A visiting American gave me two books. I had never gone to formal schools, but I had learned to read and write with the help of a kind priest. The American gave me a collection of speeches by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom.” It was Mandela’s book that spoke to me. I couldn’t put it down. Here was someone whose life I could somehow picture.

For the first time in my life I saw I had a choice. I could either submit to the degradations of poverty, to the prevailing hopelessness, or I could start my own long walk.

image via echoinggreen.org

Kennedy Odede speaking at Wes Commencement ’12

I started small, using 20 cents from my pay at a factory job to buy a soccer ball. I organized young people to work together in an organization that has grown to include a school for girls, a health clinic and a community services project. This year we will serve 50,000 people. Yet as I look at the larger structural problems of urban poverty in my country, I feel my work has just begun.

Despite my doubts and concerns, I would begin and end every day with a private conversation with Mandela. I’d ask him what he’d do when his problems seemed insurmountable.

Odede ends with this statement:

I will still talk to Mandela, and will wonder what he might do. How he might have organized another movement to take Africa forward. These are conversations we must all begin to have.

We have lost him, and must recognize the need for a next generation of selfless and driven leaders. For me, Mandela’s example will always stand as a reminder of what is possible when conviction faces injustice, of the work that still remains unfinished, and of the long road ahead.

Read the full tribute here.