Kennedy Odede seems like the kind of guy who wouldn’t be scared of anything.
He’s lived through a lot – and kept on going. When he was around 10, he ran away from home – and a violent stepfather. He lived on the streets in the slum of Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. Once a mob beat him up for stealing a mango. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. Another time he was stabbed in the arm. “I still have the scar,” he says. (Read his story here.)
With the help of a kind priest, he turned his life around, went on to attend Wesleyan University in the U.S. and in 2004 went back to Kibera to set up an anti-poverty charity called Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO), offering free education for girls and health services and water for residents. Last year the group won a humanitarian prize from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
But there is one thing that frightens him.
“I was scared of being a father,” confesses Odede, 35. He and his wife, Jessica, are now the parents of two young children, a son and a daughter.
“How do you be a good father?” he would ask himself as fatherhood loomed. “I should do it the right way. But by the way … what is the right way? What are we going to teach the children, how do we teach the children? Oh my God, if things go bad, it’s my blame.”
His wife, in case you’re wondering, was not scared of motherhood. “My wife is scared of insects,” he says. “I’m not scared of insects because of the way I grew up. I slept with rats. I was scared of dying from hunger.”
As he tries to be a good dad, he recognizes that his own childhood will be a huge influence. “When I was beaten, not feeling safe, I wanted to have someone to talk to without fear. I also wanted to be loved. I wanted comfort.”
He’s determined to be the kind of father he didn’t have. A father who’s “the rock for the children.” He wants his children to be able to figuratively (and perhaps literally) stand on their father and “feel, ‘Yes I’m on the rock” — a place where they feel safe.
He is quick to note that the father is not the only rock in a child’s life. “Fatherhood for me is like the bicycle,” he says. “The bicycle needs two wheels.” That’s the father and the mother. “So there is no way of being a good father by forgetting the other wheel.”
For Odede, a big part of fatherhood revolves around “emotional issues.” For example, he wants to teach his children that “it’s okay to be sad, to let feelings come, to cry. We are told in African culture men don’t cry, it shows you are weak. They’ll say stupid things like, ‘What are you crying like a woman?’ But you can become violent if you don’t allow the emotion come out.”
Odede himself is a crier. “I’m an emotional man, my tears come when I’m touched. I really cried when we got pregnant.”
And he doesn’t mind who sees him crying. “When people see my tears sometimes they get shocked because of my status in the community,” he says. As the head of SHOFCO, “people look up to me. When they see my tears, they say, ‘Wow, can you believe Kennedy cried!’ ” He thinks it’s good for his children and his neighbors to see.
As Odede walks the road of fatherhood, he’s finding out that even though parents teach their kids, children teach their own lessons. “Fatherhood is being patient,” he says. “I’m a community organizer – do this now, this has to be done. Fatherhood tells you, relax, man, somebody else is in control.”
Ten months after becoming a dad, he’s glad that he was scared in advance. “I think being scared was good for me, really prepared me,” he says. “My fear helped me see that a child just wants love, just wants the rock, just wants you, you, you.”
Kennedy Odede has also learned that being a father, despite the awesome responsibilities, is a lot of fun. “I became an adult very, very fast,” he says. When he plays with his kids, when he reads storybooks to them, when he does funny things, “I’m having my childhood back.”