When Kennedy Odede was a kid, he lived on the streets of a slum in Kenya.
He’d grown up in tough circumstances. His stepfather was violent. There wasn’t enough food to go around. He wasn’t sent to school. A friend convinced him he’d do better out on his own. He’d have his freedom, he’d be able to find his own food.
So when he was around 10, Kennedy left home. His new world was a world of violence. He was caught up in gang fights. He remembers being stabbed in the arm: “I still have the scar,” he says.
Then one day, when he was 12 or so, he met Martin Luther King Jr. — on the pages of a book that an older friend at a community center gave him.
“I was looking for hope in my life,” says Kennedy, who’s now in his early 30s. “When I read the story of Dr. King, it was a powerful story. Dr. King gave me a reason to believe you can change your own life and change your own community. His idea is that you don’t have to wait. Anyone’s path can change. For me that was really powerful.”
On the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, we talked to Kennedy Odede from Kenya, where he started a nonprofit called Shining Hope for Communities. It runs a free primary school for girls and helps youth find jobs. (And in case you’re wondering, his name is an homage to John F. Kennedy: Odede was born a breach baby but survived, which his parents took as a sign he’d be a leader, “so I had to get a leadership name,” he says.)
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What struck you about Dr. King’s life?
The world was full of hatred at that time in America. But he didn’t allow darkness to conquer his life. He looked for light, he looked for hope. I admire people who, because of circumstances, could turn out to be negative and yet turned out for peace, to fight for justice.
Violence was part of your life on the streets.
When I read about nonviolence, the lesson for me is that violence cannot solve problems, you know what I mean? Nonviolence is a powerful weapon. I was used to having to fight back, but when you’re nonviolent, it gives you peace of mind. I work in the slums now with young people. I go to tough neighborhoods and tell them my story and Dr. King’s story.
What’s their reaction to the idea of nonviolence?
People say nonviolence is a sign of weakness.
What do you tell them?
In my community there used to be a lot of men beating their wives. I tell people, they are the weakest men. I tell them, if you are strong, you don’t have to shoot. The weak people are violent. Peace is the most powerful tool to conquer your enemies. It confuses them. They are trying to make you be violent, and if you don’t react with violence, you’ve already won because you didn’t do what they want you to do.
So what should you do if someone attacks you on the street to rob you?
Ask the person, what do you want, do you want my phone? I believe you have to defend yourself, make sure nobody hits you, but I don’t think you can attack somebody because they snatch something from you. I see my friends who are killed when someone tries to snatch something and they fight back.
Does Dr. King’s story have meaning to the youth of Kenya today?
People say, “Dr. King is old school, from the 1960s, we don’t need him now, we have to move on.” I think we need him more than ever. There’s a lot of violence in the world, and for me, violence doesn’t just mean you assault the other person’s body, it’s also what comes out of your mouth. Words that bring hatred — for me that’s violence. Dr. King didn’t divide. He wanted to listen. It’s a time to listen more and speak less.
Do you have a favorite Dr. King quote?
“Everybody can be great. Because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve …. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”