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New Voices Fellow on Lessons Learned From Mandela

July 2, 2013

*This post has been updated to reflect that Nelson Mandela has died.

Back in July, as the world anxiously waited for updates on the health of South African leader Nelson Mandela — who died on December 5 — 2013 New Voices Fellow Kennedy Odede told his story of how Mandela unknowingly set him on his own journey out of the slums of Kenya. 

In an op-ed published on CNN’s website, Odede wrote, “I have never met Nelson Mandela, but we have had many conversations.”

Odede described his poverty-stricken childhood growing up in the Kibera slum in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi:

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.

After reading Mandela’s autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Odede saw a way out.

“For the first time in my life I saw I had a choice,” Odede wrote. “I could either submit to the degradations of poverty, to the prevailing hopelessness, or I could start my own long walk.”

Odede noted that as Mandela’s legacy goes on, there is a need for a new generation of leaders.

Read Odede’s op-ed in full here

Odede is a 2013 New Voices Fellow and the preisdent and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities. The New Voices Fellowship is an initiative from the Aspen Institute designed to bring more expert voices from the developing world into the global development discussion.

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Video: Bill Clinton on Nelson Mandela at the 2008 Aspen Ideas Festival