Posner's triumphant tale is a world-changer and a page-turner

Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner returned to Denver Oct. 20 for the release of their new book ‘Find Me Unafraid.’ Photo by John Moore


FindMeUnafraidJessica Posner
 came home to Denver’s Tattered Cover Book Store this month telling a tale so tall Hollywood would never believe it. This had everything – police corruption, violence, civil war, gangs, social injustice … and a seriously mushy love story.

Posner, a self-described privileged white girl from Denver who attended Denver School of the Arts and Wesleyan University, went to Kenya on a semester abroad and fell in love with a 23-year-old black man named Kennedy Odede. He was the unofficial “mayor” of Kibera – Africa’s largest slum, with a population of 1.5 million. Twenty-three is not so young to be mayor when you consider that the life expectancy in Kibera, where 1 in 5 infants die by age 5, and there are 1,300 people for every available toilet – is just 30. It was a gloomy, violent place mired in extreme poverty, lack of opportunity and deep gender inequality.

Posner went to Kibera at age 19 with the goal of introducing theatre to young Kiberans. She did that. Eight years later, she has also brought clean water, the Internet and a health-care clinic that now serves 60,000. Perhaps most remarkably, she opened Kibera’s first free school for girls. And, oh yeah – she married the mayor.

In 2010, Posner was named the biggest world-changer under age 25 on VH1’s nationally televised Do Something Awards, a TV event hosted by Jane Lynch

Read the in-depth Denver Post account from 2010

On Oct. 20, Posner and Odede read from their newly released book Find Me Unafraid, which has a foreword written by Nicholas Kristof, arguably The New York Times’ most influential writer.

“They faced enormous obstacles, but ultimately their personal and professional saga is uplifting, hopeful and thrilling,” Kristof wrote. “I hope you have the chance someday not only to read their incredible tale, but also to see their life’s work taking a winding mud path through Kibera, only to turn a corner and find something close to a miracle.”

Odede, named after U.S. President John F. Kennedy, was a homeless 16-year-old when he took courage from the book A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.

“My mother once told me, ‘Kennedy, you don’t have to be rich to have an impact on someone’s life,’ ” Odede told an overflow crowd of about 200 at the Tattered Cover. “That was amazing for me.

“In Africa, we have snakes, and they can bite you. My mother said, ‘Kennedy, when you see a snake, you don’t have to look for a stick to beat the snake. Use whatever you have to beat the snake.’ ”

Poverty was Kennedy’s snake. And he beat it.

He got a job in a local factory making $1 for 10 hours of work. Determined, he bought a 20-cent soccer ball in 2004 and started a youth group called Shining Hope for Communities. He started a street theatre company as a way for young people to express their anger in a peaceful way.

In 2007, he received a surprise message from Posner, then a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., asking if she could join him and put her extensive theatre background to use in Kibera. Posner was not like other theatre kids. When she was still in high school, she produced her own staging of Lee Blessing’s Eleemosynary, including making a budget and paying her professional actors and crew.

Odede thought she was crazy. He accepted anyway. The romance began immediately – and unknowingly.

“The first day we met, Kennedy held my hand a little bit too long as we crossed the street, and I looked at him funny,” Posner told the Tattered Cover crowd. “He told me that holding hands is part of Kenyan culture. And I was just so proud that I had already learned a little bit of Kenyan culture. So we walked around for weeks holding hands – only to find out much later that it was definitely not a Kenyan cultural thing.”

Jessica Posner, left, and Kennedy Odede talk about their new book ‘Find Me Unafraid’ at the Tattered Cover. Photo by John Moore

Posner’s youth theater initiative proved to be popular to the point of competitive, because participating came with meals. For many of her “actors,” ages 16-25, it might be their only opportunity to eat. A powerful creative process ensued. The students wrote of hopelessness, gender violence, tribal conflicts, AIDS and unemployment. Posner cobbled their words into a play. The company toured the country performing everywhere from sidewalks to Kenya’s national theater to a political rally attended by both presidential candidates.

That rally preceded a disputed 2007 presidential contest that escalated into widespread rioting over charges of fraud. Posner’s stay in Kibera ended just three days before much of the slum was set ablaze as fighting erupted along tribal lines. “It was total chaos. People turned on one another in confusion and anger,” she said. Thousands died, including a young mother who was a member of her theatre company.

Posner got out safely but insisted she would be back, over Odede’s protestations. “That semester in Kenya changed my whole perspective,” Posner said. “When I came back to Denver, I looked at the world so differently.”

a Find Me Unafraid Quote 7Posner told Odede that when she returned, she would stay in the slum with his family of 10. Before then, no white relief worker had ever stayed in the slum. They always typically stayed in nearby hotels.

“I said, ‘Jessica, you are crazy. You can’t do that. You can’t survive here. There is no running water. There is no toilet. It’s not the place for you.’ But, Jessica being Jessica, she forced herself into our house,’ ” Odede said with a laugh.

“The funny part was my neighbors were knocking on the door every morning asking, ‘She is dead? … Or she is alive?’ ”

But with Kenya mired in terrible political violence – and Odede on a government watch list – Posner knew she had to get Odede out of the country. She helped him get a full scholarship to Wesleyan. His turn for a culture shock.

They put together a plan to fundamentally change Kibera, starting with women and girls. With $10,000 and some babysitting money, they returned to Africa and opened the Kibera School for Girls. They also launched a wide range of holistic social-service programs tackling health care, clean water, economic empowerment and more.

“We just recently opened a second school for girls, and our girls are thriving,” Posner said. “They finished No. 1 in their entire district on their most recent government exams. We have big dreams of taking this model of a school for girls and expanding it across Kenya and beyond.”

Their story, publishers HarperCollins espouse, “vividly illustrates the power of young, hopeful people to have an impact on the world, and stands as a testament to the transformations made possible by true love.” ​ 

The overflow crowd gathered at the Tattered Cover on Oct. 20, above and below right. Photo by John Moore. 

To order the book:

Find Me Unafraid, by Jessica Posner, is available at all Tattered Cover book stores, or can be ordered online at www.tatteredcover.com or at amazon.com

SHOFCO: Impact to date

  • A national survey of 18- to 24-year-olds found that 32 percent of females had experienced sexual violence. By comparison, only 4 percent of students at the Kibera School for Girls had experienced sexual violence since enrolling.
  • 78 percent of women involved in SHOFCO Economic Empowerment Programs have their own source of income.
  • While 44 percent of married women in Kibera participate in household financial decisions, 62 percent of women whose daughter attends the Kibera School for Girls either jointly control or head household financial decisions.
  • Parents of Kibera School for Girls students have more stable employment and an average of 14 percent higher income.
  • 1,333 households (6,665 people) get their daily water at one of SHOFCO’s clean water kiosks.
  • 6,000 people use SHOFCO toilets every day.


Kennedy Odede and Jessica Posner at the Tattered Cover with Posner’s parents, Helen Buchsbaum and David Posner. Photo by John Moore.

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