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Shortly after Jess first arrived in Nairobi, by far the furthest she had ever been from her hometown of Denver, Colorado, she emailed Kennedy asking if she could come to Kibera, to see his theater group perform and maybe even work with him. Wary of would-be slum tourists, Kennedy wanted to ensure, as he told me, that this newly-arrived American was, “serious.” Kennedy’s curiosity about Jess’s motives is understandable.Kennedy talked to me about how starting around the time Jess arrived, he began noticing advertisements for ‘slum tours’ that vowed, incongruously, to show people ‘the real slum’ without having to get ‘too dirty.’ Kennedy wanted people to work with him who didn’t mind “getting dirty,” and who were focused on “empowering people in the slums, not profiting off their misery.” Jess sent Kennedy her resume, he saw she was serious and he said he could tell her heart “was in the right place.” When he walked her to the bus stop at the end of her first day in Kibera, he suspected he was already in love with her – and she suspected she was in love with him too.
She was in the hospital battling malaria and was delirious. He told Jess he loved her because he thought she wouldn’t remember!
She did remember, and she knew it wasn’t the malaria talking.
Jess also didn’t want to be “another white person” who showed up and then left.
Kennedy told me that he didn’t know of another white person who had ever spent more than a night in Kibera, certainly no one who had ever moved in. Jess and Kennedy both said that for weeks after Jess moved in, neighbors would knock on their door each morning to see if Jess was still alive – many people didn’t expect her to survive a day.
Jess didn’t tell her parents she’d moved to Kibera – she also didn’t tell them she was already developing deep feelings for Kennedy.