In an African slum, Talking to Mandela

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 7/1/2013, 11:53 a.m.
I have never met Nelson Mandela, but we have had many conversations.
Nelson Mandela

In an African slum, talking to Mandela

By Kennedy Odede

Special to CNN

I have never met Nelson Mandela, but we have had many conversations.

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.

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.

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.

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.