Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Nelson Mandela saved my life

By Kennedy Odede, Special to CNN
December 5, 2013 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
A child holds a portrait of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa.
A child holds a portrait of Nelson Mandela in Pretoria, South Africa.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • At 10, Kennedy Odede was on and off the streets in a sprawling Nairobi, Kenya, slum
  • He was extremely poor and believed he was fated to die poor -- this was his prison
  • Odede's life turned around when he read Nelson Mandela's books and speeches
  • He would "speak" to Mandela, whose inspiration led him to achieve, excel and help others

Editor's note: Kennedy Odede is the president and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities, a nonprofit organization that fights gender inequality and extreme poverty in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. He is a 2013 New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.

(CNN) -- 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.

At 10, I was on and off the streets. I flitted from house to house, unable to live at home with my mother because my stepfather had threatened to kill us both if I tried to come home. I knew I was born poor, and believed I was fated to die poor. This was my prison.

A man listens to a radio in the huge Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where Kennedy Obede grew up.
A man listens to a radio in the huge Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where Kennedy Obede grew up.

I needed a role model, but in Kibera, these were in short supply. At 16, I felt the pressure from gangs and drugs -- while fighting the temptation to drink my misery away and to find temporary comfort with women, like I saw my friends do.

Opinion: A white South African's memories of Mandela

Even as the shadow of AIDS spread, I saw no reason not to die young, because I had nothing to live for.

Our lives in the slums seemed to take a friend every day. Police shot my friend Boi; they thought he looked like a criminal. My childhood friend Calvin hanged himself. His suicide note said what I felt: "I just can't take it anymore." Both of my sisters were raped and impregnated as teenagers. People seemed to fade and disappear. To live was the exception. I am now 29, and all but two of my closest childhood friends are dead.

Kennedy Odede
Kennedy Odede

It was Mandela who saved my life.

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.

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.

Obama: Mandela a hero for the world
Obama and Mandela's relationship
Mandela's family: Every moment matters
Reporting challenges of Mandela health

I shared with him my triumphs, and I read every speech of his I could find.

But as I grew older I began to wonder about the power and perils of being a living hero. Mandela was, for me and for my continent, more than a person. He is the emblem of progress. He came through poverty and struggle yet did not allow it to embitter him. Instead he seemed emboldened by a sense of urgency.

Why Mandela has six names

My fear is that we become too comfortable with his legacy -- content with honoring what Mandela has stood for that we forget to carry forward his sense of urgency.

The journey to freedom in my country, Kenya, and in Mandela's own country, South Africa, is far from over. On a recent visit to Johannesburg, I spoke for an hour with three young men about the crushing challenges of their lives in one of South Africa's burgeoning slums.

They are not alone. Mandela accomplished so much, but worldwide an ever-growing gap between rich and poor and mounting inequality threatens all for which he fought.

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.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Kennedy Odede.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
World War I ushered in an era of chemical weapons use that inflicted agonizing injury and death. Its lethal legacy lingers into conflicts today, Paul Schulte says
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
Mel Robbins says many people think there's "something suspicious" about Leanna Harris. But there are other interpretations of her behavior
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Newt Gingrich warns that President Obama's border plan spends too much and doesn't do what is needed
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1753 GMT (0153 HKT)
Amy Bass says Germany's rout of Brazil on its home turf was brutal, but in defeat the Brazilian fans' respect for the victors showed why soccer is called 'the beautiful game'
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1754 GMT (0154 HKT)
Errol Lewis says if it really wants to woo black voters away from the Democrats, the GOP better get behind its black candidates
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2107 GMT (0507 HKT)
Aaron Carroll explains how vaccines can prevent illnesses like measles, which are on the rise
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0008 GMT (0808 HKT)
Aaron Miller says if you think the ongoing escalation between Israel and Hamas over Gaza will force a moment of truth, better think again
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2241 GMT (0641 HKT)
Martin Luther King Jr. fought and died so blacks would no longer be viewed as inferior but rather enjoy the same inherent rights given to whites in America.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 1147 GMT (1947 HKT)
Alex Castellanos says recent low approval ratings spell further trouble for the President
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 0349 GMT (1149 HKT)
Paul Begala says Boehner's plan to sue Obama may be a stunt for the tea party, or he may be hoping the Supreme Court's right wing will advance the GOP agenda that he could not
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1659 GMT (0059 HKT)
The rapture is a bizarre teaching in fundamentalist circles, made up by a 19th-century theologian, says Jay Parini. It may have no biblical validity, but is a really entertaining plot device in new HBO series
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1749 GMT (0149 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette: President Obama needs to send U.S. marshals to protect relocating immigrant kids.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1903 GMT (0303 HKT)
Norman Matloff says a secret wage theft pact between Google, Apple and others highlights ethics problems in Silicon Valley.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 2237 GMT (0637 HKT)
The mother of murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khder cries as she meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, West Bank on July 7, 2014.
Naseem Tuffaha says the killing of Israeli teenagers has rightly brought the world's condemnation, but Palestinian victims like his cousin's slain son have been largely reduced to faceless, nameless statistics.
July 9, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says charging the dad in the hot car death case with felony murder, predicated on child neglect, was a smart strategic move.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 1326 GMT (2126 HKT)
Van Jones says our nation is sitting on a goldmine of untapped talent. The tech companies need jobs, young Latinos and blacks need jobs -- so how about a training pipeline?
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1309 GMT (2109 HKT)
A drug that holds hope in the battle against hepatitis C costs $1,000 per pill. We can't solve a public health crisis when drug makers charge such exorbitant prices, Karen Ignagni says.
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1133 GMT (1933 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says our political environment is filled with investigations or accusations of another scandal; all have their roots in the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon
July 6, 2014 -- Updated 1814 GMT (0214 HKT)
Sally Kohn says Boehner's lawsuit threat is nonsense that wastes taxpayer money, distracts from GOP's failure to pass laws to help Americans
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Speaker John Boehner says President Obama has circumvented Congress with his executive actions and plans on filing suit against the President this month
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
Hands down, it's 'Hard Day's Night,' says Gene Seymour-- the exhilarating, anarchic and really fun big screen debut for the Beatles. It's 50 years old this weekend
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 2201 GMT (0601 HKT)
Belinda Davis says World War I plunged millions of women across the globe into "men's jobs," even as they kept home and hearth. The legacy continues into today.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1824 GMT (0224 HKT)
Pablo Alvarado says all the children trying to cross the U.S. border shows immigration is a humanitarian crisis that can't be solved with soldiers and handcuffs.
July 3, 2014 -- Updated 1151 GMT (1951 HKT)
Elizabeth Mitchell says Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi dreamt up the symbolic colossus not for money, but to embody a concept--an artwork to amaze for its own sake. Would anyone do that today?
July 2, 2014 -- Updated 1601 GMT (0001 HKT)
Wendy Townsend says Jamaica sold two protected islands to China for a huge seaport, which could kill off a rare iguana and hurt ecotourism.
ADVERTISEMENT