I’ve been thinking a lot about starting. I just finished Find Me Unafraid: Love, Loss, and Hope in an African Slum by Kennedy Odede & Jessica Posner. They started a school for girls in a Kenyan slum and wrote a book about it. Not knowing anything about it, I picked up the book so I could make polite conversation with Jessica if I ran into her. I knew her from undergrad. But, the book caught me, plucked some deep strings in my soul, and changed my life.
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“This is the very first primary school for girls in the slum providing a superior, creative education, daily nourishment, and a refuge from the pressures of the slum.”
“My God, Jess. Do you think we could actually do this?”
She takes my hand in hers. “If you tell me how to navigate the logistics, I understand the educational piece and can make a plan for your school.”
—from Find Me Unafraid
Jessica’s sentiment is a feeling I remember from undergrad. At Wesleyan, if you had a plan, you could do whatever you wanted. It’s the company line, but it was true. That was my experience. I was a mediocre history major, but I had a plan, and I got to write the history thesis paper I wanted to write. Because I had a plan, a clear plan that rattled around in my passions, I did pretty well on that thesis. I also wanted to direct a play while I wrote that thesis. I made a plan, a plan that was clear and that excited me. I got the funds to build the ridiculous sets the designer and I wanted built. Somehow, a composer agreed to write an original score. The shows were pretty cool.
New York is a different animal. The systems are harder to find. It’s scarier to start. Anything you do will be put on your permanent record. If at Wesleyan you were a big fish in a small pond, then in New York you’re krill. There’s someone better than you, more handsome than you, richer than you, and related to more famous people than you. There’s someone more passionate about and more committed to whatever it is you’re doing or thinking of doing or doing on a whim. It’s expensive and you don’t have time. You can drink alone in your apartment. And so on.
Now that I’m cloistered by an institution again, it’s a little easier. But even now, it’s scary. Those same concerns are still my concerns. Especially about not having time, or about saying something problematic. But Find Me Unafraid shifted something in me. I think you ought to read it.
Find Me Unafraid is suspenseful. Like, GERD-inducing suspenseful, bad-decision Lost binge-watching suspenseful, Grisham’s The Firm suspenseful. On nights I should have been resting for 13-hour conservatory days, I was up till two, three, waiting for Jessica to just kiss Kennedy. Wondering if he would be shot next at the roadside checkpoint executions. Wondering if Jessica would experience the violence against women that Kennedy had been fighting to stop.
Find Me Unafraid is full of heart. I wept when Kennedy, overlooking the roofs of Kibera, said to Jessica, “Sometimes I see things when I am up here…I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you.” Also, I think of how my own girlfriend empowers me to do my best work and be my best self. Kennedy says to Jessica, on what makes a loving partner, “I think it’s being able to ‘spend’ for someone. Being able to give to the world outside because of them.” There’s no rulebook for their love. The book is full of emotion and heart, amidst their not knowing anything but the deep truth of their love.
Find Me Unafraid is about the How. I think it’s the story of two people taking baby steps and going huge distances together, in their community and in their relationship.
When Kennedy wants change, he’s fighting for his life, for his community. He takes action because he must. And he doesn’t set out to solve everything. Buying a single soccer ball was the least and most Kennedy could do. A single soccer ball led to organized games, activist theater, the revolutionary Kibera School for Girls, a health center, clean water, and so on.
Jessica must take action, but it’s different for her—she can retreat to her old world. She wholly takes ownership of that privilege, and tries to find ways to help that are full of integrity and respect. Although she is an outsider in Kibera, I don’t think her fight is any less powerful. She’s fighting for meaning, I think. And meaning brings life or death.
Their combined efforts led to an accumulation of progress for the community, not to mention a pretty successful school. Aside from winning support and accolades from multiple organizations and individuals, their work was featured in Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn’s PBS documentary, A Path Appears. Mia Farrow tours Kibera, and Bill Clinton says some nice things about them. It’s worth watching.
And after reading Find Me Unafraid, I felt an unshakeable urge to take action, too. The book is a great gift. Sometimes my body feels heavy when I walk in the canyons of 6th Avenue’s skyscrapers. But sometimes I say to those towers, “If you can do that, I can do this.” And I walk a little taller. I felt the same way reading about the achievements in Kibera. If Jessica and Kennedy can start a school in Kibera, I can write a play, finish a poem, or post a stupid little blog post. The first-world-problem nature of this comparison is not lost on me, but the privilege of our circumstances must never serve as an excuse for stasis or apathy. I may never know what it’s like to walk in Kennedy’s shoes, but I must listen, and imagine. And I can and must take the next right action within my immediate orbits. I love and try to live this cliché: think global, act local.
The title Find Me Unafraid comes from a poem by William Earnest Henley. The same poem was at the side of one of my ancestors when he took his own life. I do not know what was in his mind. But I think he was asking the poem to convince him of his own agency. Ultimately, he must have worn this realm too heavily. The world will lie to us if we let it. He couldn’t see his empowerment, and so he took control another way.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
We always have a choice—stagnate or move forward, surrender or cling to hope, live or die. I happen to think we must choose action, in this realm, here, now. And it can be a step as small as buying a soccer ball.
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For more information about SHOFCO (Shining Hope For Communities), visit the SHOFCO website, read Kennedy Odede & Jessica Posner’s Find Me Unafraid, or stream Nicholas Kristof & Sheryl WuDunn’s PBS documentary, A Path Appears.