Photo depicting the book "Rooted in Love" displayed on a long, colorful dining table at Kezira Cafe.

Simon Javan Okelo’s ‘Rooted in Love’ Brings Together a Lifelong Vision

by Amanda Ong

Simon Javan Okelo has worked for years to promote African culture and youth arts programming through his nonprofit organization, One Vibe Africa. Now that work is commemorated in a book. 

Rooted in Love, released in March, uses photos, literature, and nonfiction essays to explore One Vibe Africa’s mission of educating people in the U.S. about African culture while promoting social welfare through arts programming in Okelo’s hometown of Kisumu, Kenya. The book, which was six years in the making, features a fictional story about Farida, a young girl from Kenya who grows through One Vibe Africa’s work there. 

“[Rooted in Love] has pictures and short essays of people that have also interacted with One Vibe one way or another, from across the world,” Okelo said in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald. “[It shows] how we are becoming a global hub for people who love Africa and people who want to make a difference in this world.”

Photo depicting a group of African, African American, and Black individuals gathered at a long, colorful dining table at Kezira Cafe.
A One Vibe African Dinner Experience at Kezira Cafe earlier this year. (Photo: Allen Wong)

One Vibe started in Kisumu, Kenya, where the organization is still based. There, it runs education, music, and art programs and advocates for music and arts as an alternative to street violence. 

Okelo, who has lived in Seattle since 2010, is also creating a bridge between Seattle and Kenya. One Vibe leads cultural exchanges with artists as well as organized youth trips and workshops in Kenya that feature Seattle artists. There are dinners with chefs from different African countries, Kijiji Night, which brings African and African American communities together during Black History Month, and the Madaraka Festival with an impressive array of arts performers.

And Okelo sees more than just programmatic connections between these two places he’s called home.

“Similar to the South End of Seattle, you find that where I grew up in Kenya, there was a lot of violence and a lot of drugs,” Okelo said. “But the government didn’t really pay enough attention to these issues in our community, and so we had to find our solutions to our problems. Now, over 2,000 youths have graduated and benefited from our programs.” 

Photo depicting Simon Okelo seated and wearing a yellow vest while playing a traditional harp-like instrument.
Simon Okelo earlier this year at Kezira Cafe during a One Vibe African Dinner Experience. (Photo: Allen Wong)

Growing up with a single mother, Okelo started work at 8. He remembers sometimes having just one meal a day and experiencing the loss of many friends to violence. What’s more, Kisumu was the epicenter of HIV and AIDS in the 1990s, with the highest prevalence of HIV in the world. Okelo’s mother and a number of women in their community started an orphanage to create a safe haven for children who lost their parents as a result. Okelo says this is, in part, where he learned how to run a nonprofit. 

“Just surviving that in itself is a miracle,” Okelo said. “And that’s part of why I do what I do with One Vibe, because I don’t want the stories of those that left us to just be gone like that. I know that I survived for a reason.”

Rooted in Love was born when two of Okelo’s colleagues asked him to write a story about someone who has benefited from the work of One Vibe Africa. Okelo wrote the story of Farida, a young girl from Kenya who learns to play music through One Vibe’s programming and grows up to become a leader in the organization, and is able to live a better life than she otherwise would have. 

The book also highlights cross-cultural connections between Seattle and Kisumu. Okelo notes that both places are creative hubs with strong artist communities. There’s even an overt connection through the University of Washington, which has a presence in some of Kisumu’s local hospitals and universities. 

The book also explores the disparities in outcomes for youth in Kenya compared to those in Seattle. In Okelo’s story, Farida struggles to receive the same opportunities that youth in Seattle might. “Innovation from people who are raised in the slums is not recognized, because innovation from people who are raised in underserved communities is just seen as gibberish,” Okelo said. “But if it’s a kid from Bellevue, who had the skills that [Farida] had, it would be elevated; it would be that kid would be taken by MIT.”

Photo depicting Simon Okelo seated in front of a stage with musical instruments and wearing a yellow vest handing his book "Rooted in Love" to another male-presenting Black-presenting individual.
Okelo was born in Kisumu, Kenya, but has lived in Seattle since 2010. He hopes the work of One Vibe Africa continues to make connections between African communities in both cities. (Photo: Allen Wong)

Okelo himself is the father of three girls and hosts a podcast, “African Father in America.” His ultimate vision is steady in its focus on transforming the lives of youth, whether here or in Kisumu. 

Okelo’s hope is that organizations like One Vibe will develop leaders. He points out that Google has recently invested over $1 billion in a research center in Nairobi, Kenya. Okelo hopes One Vibe can help Kenyan youth prepare for opportunities like these. “One Vibe Africa is hoping to prepare youth for any opportunity anywhere in the world they might find, by giving them life skills to thrive as leaders,” Okelo said.

For Okelo, writing Rooted in Love has been a labor of love that he could not do alone. As a collaborative book, it reflects the nature of One Vibe Africa itself as an organization that has thrived through collaboration. 

“The work I do with One Vibe Africa, it’s work that you can’t do alone,” Okelo said. “It took me about six years to work on Rooted in Love. And that’s because I really didn’t set out to write a book … Rooted in Love is just as a result of me looking back and identifying people who were involved [with One Vibe Africa] and just asking them what they would say about this work.”

The result is a book that reflects all of the meanings, the relationships, and the growth that have come through Okelo’s life work, vision, and aspirations. 

“I do most of the work I do currently in bringing our community together here in the Pacific Northwest,” Okelo said. “I’m just using my experiences to help make the world a better place, you know, one child at a time, one festival at a time, and now, one book at a time.”

Rooted in Love is available for purchase online.

Amanda Ong (she/her) is a Chinese American writer from California. She is currently a master’s candidate at the University of Washington Museology program and graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with degrees in creative writing and ethnicity and race studies.

📸 Featured Image: Simon Okelo’s first book, “Rooted in Love,” uses photos, essays, and fiction to commemorate and reflect on the work of One Vibe Africa, an organization that promotes youth in arts and creates connections between Kenya and Seattle. (Photo: Allen Wong)

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