The Hero's Journey - A Portrait of Edwin Oketch / by Jeb Burroughs

 Edwin walking through his home, Kibera.

Edwin walking through his home, Kibera.

6.10.16

The heroes journey is present in all cultures, religions, and ideologies. It’s an innate platform for storytelling, and one that holds hundreds of thousands of iterations that span the length of time. However, not all stories must end with a noble act of courage. Rather, as Joseph Campbell points out in his book "The Power of Myth," the hero’s journey can be just as easily interpreted as a life lived of self-discovery. This is the case for Edwin Oketch.

One of the more memorable moments from my time with Edwin occurred while we were waiting for some students to be dismissed from class on a Thursday morning back in late February. It was a rather simple moment, but while we were talking he expressed that “sometimes in life you just have to trust that everything will work out.” This was especially poignant given Edwin's personal history. He was born and raised in Kibera, and to have sustained this mindset given his environment must have been extremely difficult if not nearly impossible. Kibera is the second largest slum in the world and is home to two-thirds of Nairobi’s population. In Kibera, the dusty alleyways are littered with soda bottles and deflated soccer balls, the rusted house walls are covered in graffiti, and the narrow streets are filled with young children, aimlessly milling around looking for a purpose in life. This dismal environment often breeds trouble for the youth that live there.

During his years in middle school, Edwin lost his mother, and soon after, his father. In fact, the only time he left Kibera growing up was to attend his father’s burial service in his home village. Once both parents had left his life, he and his siblings parted ways. Edwin was the only one to remain in Kibera. Having no home, no family, and no guidance, he was forced to find a way to live on his own. Edwin lived in a state of perpetual uncertainty, not knowing if there would be food or a floor to sleep on at the end of each day. He found himself staying at friends houses for weeks at a time trying to find a steady place to live, though often he would be asked to leave due to the lack of contribution he brought to the table every night. He was a “burden to others,” as he described to me.

After primary school he found himself in a children’s shelter and while he had a roof over his head, he frequently experienced abuse and neglect. At this point in his life he knew many friends who had fallen to drugs, and who would never finish their schooling. At this point, Edwin himself was without family or many friends, and would often go multiple nights without food. He felt lost without hope, and contemplated suicide.

Soon after hitting rock bottom his life started to turn around. The great Roman philosopher Seneca once said that “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” What stopped Edwin from going through with suicide was the realization that for his entire childhood he had been preparing for an opportunity to pitch his life story. Luckily, he found an audience that listened. Some members of the Christian Brothers Community in the United States sponsored Edwin after hearing his story and provided him with the funds to go to high school. In Kenya, gaps in society are almost entirely based on one’s education. Education is what often fiscally separates you from your friends, and your family, so for Edwin this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

Through his high school years, Edwin discovered his love for social work. After graduating high school, he moved on to receive degrees from two universities in Kenya and started working at an organization called Carolina for Kibera. There, he was activley in charge of keeping over 500 children productive whether it be in school or on the soccer pitch. His love for the community of Kibera is what inevitably led to his success as a leader. To this day, even though Edwin isn’t financially tied to Kibera, he still chooses to live in the slum. For him, Kibera isn’t just a part of his past, but rather it’s a representation of who he has become. Edwin lives with the belief that the only two pieces that he can control in life are his attitude and his effort. Ultimately, the outcome of that belief resulted in his undeniably strong character, and has shaped the man who he is today.

 Edwin playing with Kariuki at Flying Kites.

Edwin playing with Kariuki at Flying Kites.

It’s true. Sometimes in life you just have to trust that everything will work out.

- Jeb.