In 2004, Kennedy Odede ’12 spent twenty cents on a soccer ball and started a youth group. Inspired by a book of Martin Luther King’s speeches, he wanted to foster a sense of hope in his hometown of Kibera, Kenya, one of the largest African slums. He called his group Shining Hope for Communities (SHOFCO). Little did he know that his soccer ball would be the beginning of a movement that would change many lives in remarkable ways.
Three years after SHOFCO was established, Jessica Posner ’09 traveled to Kibera for a study abroad program. There, she met Odede, and together they molded the organization into what it is today. Their vision all began with the Kibera School for Girls, a tuition-free institution that would stress the importance of women’s education within the slum community.
However, SHOFCO has since expanded far beyond just one school. Odede and Posner have also started The Johanna Justin-Jinch Community Clinic, which provides free medical services to all of Kibera, and even created a water tower to provide the community with the clean drinking water that it might not have otherwise had. To this day, the grassroots organization seeks to foster a sense of community in Kibera through a community center with a library, computer center, and meeting space. Kibera is also home to the SHOFCO Women’s Empowerment, which provides HIV-positive individuals with an income through the production and sale of their handmade products, such as jewelry and bags. In the fall of 2014, they opened a second school for girls in Mathare, another Kenyan slum.
One of SHOFCO’s most unique programs is its Summer Institute, which runs from mid-June to mid-July and gives college-aged students an opportunity to teach at The Kibera School for Girls. Participants team up with SHOFCO program members to run a summer camp for the students while the teachers plan for the upcoming school year.
At the University, SHOFCO-Wesleyan helps raise money for the Kibera School and all of its projects for community empowerment and health. Several students involved in this campus group have participated in Summer Institute, including Kevin Winnie ’16, Marina King ’16, Khalilah Lushiku ’16, and Alessandra Cervera ’16.
“My time on the Summer Institute really changed my attitude and values,” Winnie wrote in an email to The Argus. “As a white American male, I was stepping into a community that was impoverished and suffered, yet rich in culture, public service, and personality. I was really set straight by my experience. I learned that your relationships with others and your pride in your work are really important. I befriended and worked with people that made a miniscule income, but they cared about the ones they loved, were proud of who they were and persevered regardless of the obstacles placed in their path. I can only wish and strive to reflect these values.”
King also stressed the sense of perspective her experience at Summer Institute gave her.
“It was a really awesome experience,” King said. “It really opened my eyes to what SHOFCO is and what they do. When you’re actually there you see so much of the community and how this organization is helping it. Also, being there with the school is incredible. The students themselves are amazing, but it also makes you really appreciate education. I’ve always taken my education for granted, but its so inspiring to see the way these girls love to learn.”
For Cervera, it was the opportunity to participate in the greater SHOFCO movement that was particularly rewarding.
“It was really nice to get a deeper understanding of the tiny role that SHOFCO-Wesleyan plays in the larger SHOFCO picture,” Cervera said. “You get that deeper understanding of what exactly SHOFCO is. Its not just a school for girls, but an entire community-building project that revolves around the school. It’s helping to improve the community by showing just how important girl’s education is.”
Lushiku started the program in 2014 and continued for two years. She worked as a volunteer teacher during her first year, and as a member of the administration for her second.
“It was really rewarding to make connections with people, and coming back was when I realized that that was something that really happened,” Lushiku said. “I remember the first time that I came back to Kibera. People remembered me, and I remembered people. I felt like I was coming back to a place where I had friends. Everyone was so excited when I walked into the school for the first time that second year. The Summer Institute really is a program that allows you to make lasting connections.”
One of the main ideas of SHOFCO is that it is an organization run for Kenyans by Kenyans. With that idea in mind, it can be pretty unnerving to go as an American volunteer. Lushiku described some of the apprehensions she had while abroad.
“As a light-skinned black person, working in Kibera every day was strange,” Lushiku said. “As you walk down the street, everyone asks you how you are, but that’s how they greet white people. It caused a lot of doubt and made me question why all of the volunteers wanted to be there. I started to see myself as an unimportant but useful tool that people were using to better themselves.”
Reflecting on his experience at the Institute, Winnie similarly expressed the doubts that came to him while he was in Kibera. These concerns, he explained, were finally eased when he came to terms with the role of Americans in the SHOFCO program.
“Throughout the Summer Institute, I debated the significance of what the program entails; whether our volunteer work was important or detrimental to the community,” Winnie wrote. “I was conflicted with my involvement in SHOFCO. Was I being a neocolonist? What do those in Kibera think of me? Who am I in relation to those in Kibera? In the end, I decided that we were not like the other mission trips or volunteer programs. SHOFCO was born in Kibera, is ran by those in Kibera and is not an American endeavor. I was not attempting to force my own beliefs and values onto the KSG girls or any other Kenyans.”
Echoing many of Winnie’s discoveries, King described the secondary role Westerners play in shaping SHOFCO’s initiatives.
“It’s really interesting to see the way in which Western influence is such a small part of SHOFCO,” King said. “So much of it is really for the community by the community, and seeing this was a really eye-opening lesson for me. I learned to take my presence there as a grain of salt. It was especially important to understand my place in their larger plans.”
Of course, any new experience presents its challenges, and Summer Institute volunteers have to be ready to deal with all kinds of challenges.
“You not only have to have a plan B, but also plans C, D, and E and sometimes not even a plan at all,” Cervera said. “It’s all about opening yourself up to uncertainties, being able to deal with ridiculous obstacles, and knowing how to think on your feet.”
Most past volunteers believe that it takes a certain kind of person to be able to learn and grow from this program and experience.
“I wouldn’t recommend this experience to everyone,” Lushiku said. “I would recommend it to people that want to help the world but are also critical of all volunteer organizations and NGOs. It allows you to allow other people to do a lot of good for themselves and others by extension. It’s good for bridging cultures and getting a sense of what other people do, and it really puts your own issues, actions, and causes into a nice perspective.”
Elaborating on the growth discussed by Lushiku, King noted that leaning into discomfort is key to getting the most out of the SHOFCO experience.
“You have to be open to learning about your ignorance,” King said. “I don’t think I’m an expert in Kenyan culture at all, but I think immersing yourself as much as you can in a completely different environment is a really great way to confront your ignorance, expand your knowledge, and introduce yourself to new things.”