A Voice For the Voiceless


The Advocacy Project (AP) recruits students to help marginalized communities tell their story and claim their rights.

My RSS Feed

Twitter: #apfellows

The Future for Masai Women

Brooke Blanchard | Posted August 23rd, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , ,

While working at the Kakenya Center for Excellence Girls Academy, I had the opportunity to sit down with a couple girls to learn about their journey to the school and their hopes for the future. Here are three stories that hopefully shed a bit of light on the lives and upbringing of Masai girls. For privacy reasons I will not share the young girls’ portraits. However I will share more pictures from the school. Enjoy!


Angeline Sayvah

With a perfectly heart-shaped face and round glowing cheeks, Class 5 student Angeline Sayuah appears much younger than her reported 14 years. Quiet and prone to picking at any loose ends with fidgeting fingers when adult attention is focused on her, she tends to hang back in the congregating crowd of shouting and laughing school girls. Nevertheless her subdued character is merely the cover of an intelligent girl on the brink of becoming a strong young woman.

Born and raised in the Karda area, Angeline was the second born out of three children to a family of farmers. From an early age is became clear that her older sister suffered from a debilitating illness that prevented her from walking the long distance to their primary school and helping with the daily labor needed around the house. Due to this physical disability, Angeline’s sister was pulled out of school after only reaching Class 3 and Angeline had to take on extra work around the house. The combination of additional work and a long walking distance to school (or expensive motorbike ride), Angeline was consistently late for class and undoubtedly her academic achievements suffered.

While in Class 1 and at the age of 7, Angeline and her siblings became orphans when their mother passed away (the cause is unknown). Whether dead or simply never in the picture, Angeline sums up the total existence of her father when she quietly states: “I don’t know anything about him.” The three children went to live with their grandmother, however soon thereafter Angeline and her brother moved in with their aunt close to Enoosaen.

Last year, Angeline’s aunt brought the young girl to the Enkakenya Center for Excellence to apply for a spot in the new school. Due to her status as an orphan Angeline was accepted without question and began a new chapter in her life. When asked why she likes her new school, Angeline offers the smallest crease of a smile (which she immediately hides with her cupped hands) and says softly that: “learning at KCE is good compared to Karda because the teachers here teach well, the uniforms are given without having to pay for them, and there are enough text books for all the students.” Angeline says that these improvements, plus not having to be late to school due to household work as lead to an increase in her academic performance.

Angeline, now in her second year here at KCE, is aiming to achieve 400 marks in KCPE in order to join a good secondary school which will allow her to go to university. In the future, Angeline would like to become a doctor and support her brother and sister. Furthermore, if she is able to, she would like to build a bigger school than KCE for girls who are orphans. Till then however, Angeline will continue to work hard, and enjoy her hobbies of reading storybooks and playing football.

Cats cradle after lessons are over
Cats cradle after lessons are over
Yiamat Nchamusi

For any girl, the early teenage years can be an uncomfortable and confusing period of gangly limbs and flip flop personalities. Standing almost a foot taller than most of the other girls at the Enkakenya school, 12-year-old Class 5 student Yiamat Nchamusi is the epitome of pre-teen awkwardness and emerging beauty. Loud, hardworking and friendly, Yiamat tends to dominate any conversation or game she and her friends partake in. While in class, her hand is one of the first to shoot up when the teacher asks for a volunteer to work a problem on the blackboard.

Yiamat was born into a Masai polygamous family in the Sikawa area. Her mother is the first wife of her father and she has a step-mother who is her father’s second wife. In total there are seven children in the household, three boys and four girls all of whom are attending school. Yiamat fits squarely in the middle as the 4th born in her family. The large family subsists on the income they receive from farming maize, sugarcane, and milk.

When asked to discuss her former life at home, Yiamat becomes uncharacteristically quiet and introverted. Only with gentle coaxing does she revel that while living at home she was considerably unhappy. Yiamat details a rural farm life where men are consistently drunk and who wreak havoc upon their families when they return from a night of drinking elicit brew. She also describes her heavy work load which included selling milk in the evenings rather than studying her school work. She slept little and studied even less.

Yiamat is very happy to now be boarding at the Enkakenya Center for Excellence. Here she is able to study often and sleep more which she hopes will help her achieve 400 marks on her KCPE. When asked what else she likes about her new school, Yiamat says that they: don’t have to pay a lot of money to attend, don’t have to walk a long distance for lunch and that their school is the only building around that is two stories tall. Her favorite subject is mathematics and loves her teachers who she says are “always ready to answer students’ questions.

In the future, Yiamat aims to become a doctor after completing her university studies. However Yiamat explains the KCE will help her achieve her dream of treating sick people because at her school there are many books to read, really good teachers, and she gets to go to school every day. When asked what the best part about living at a boarding school is, her response seems very appropriate for a near teenage girl: “Because we don’t have to be around our parents.”

Thumbs up
Thumbs up
Lyn Seenoi

Lyn Seenoi is a 10-year-old tiny ball of energy who never seems to stop smiling her big wide grin for too long of a period. While one of the smallest girls in her Class 5, Lyn makes up for her short stature with an infectious laugh and eagerness to chat and play games.

Lyn was born and raised in the small town of Kilgoris, near Enoosaen. She has one older sister whom after reaching Form 4 had her own baby. While living in Kilgoris, Lyn was able to attend the local primary academy, however while in Class 3 her mother passed away. Without any knowledge of her father’s existence, the two sisters became orphans with Lyn moving in with their aunt and her sister with her grandmother.

With the opening of the Enkakenya Center for Excellence, Lyn’s aunt took her and one of her own daughters to apply for spot in the new student body. Both girls were accepted and began their studies in their respective classes. Once in the school, Lyn’s grades steadily began to improve and she now aims to receive 400 marks on her KCPE and eventually join a university where she can study to become a nurse. When asked why she would make a good nurse, she replies that she does very well in school and nurses have to do that.

In the mean time, Lyn will enjoy her time and studies at the KCE where she gets to play jump rope-a favorite past time activity- be with friends, have many books, and have “teachers that teach well.”

Beautiful Girls
Beautiful Girls

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

Kakenya’s Dream

Brooke Blanchard | Posted August 23rd, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , ,

The small town of Enoosaen in West Kenya has one main dirt road which you either travel by foot or by motorbike on, one market, lots of donkeys, cattle and chickens, and a beautiful community of Masai people whose lives seem to be straddling their traditional rural past and the modernizing developments of the future. Men and women will cross your path wearing traditional Masai garb, with ears stretched out and the occasional red dyed hair. It is a startling difference to the gritty urban expansion world of Nairobi.

Young Masai Girls
Young Masai Girls

While living in this farming area tucked on the south western edge of the Rift Valley, I had the incredible opportunity to work for the Kakenya Center for Excellence; a newly developed boarding school for Masai girls. The idea of a well functioning school that targets only girls, boards them, and has a set curriculum that might mirror many exclusive private schools in the states is a rare accomplishment. In Enoosaen, traditional Masai roles are still for the most part maintained. Most young girls are put through the ritual of female circumcision (FGC/FGM) around 14 years and are married soon thereafter. They rarely receive an education past grade 8 if any at all. Many young girls are married against their will and some (whom I had the privileged to meet and live with) have managed to escape (sometimes running for days) and find refuge with an understanding neighbor or teacher.

Kakenya's School Girls
Kakenya's School Girls

The Kakenya Center for Excellence (The Academy for Girls) was initiated by a vivacious, warm, and incredible Masai woman named Kakenya. She left Enoosaen to go to college in the United States with the promise that she would use her education to better her home community. To learn more about her please visit her website, http://www.kakenyasdream.org/

Kakenya and her girls
Kakenya and her girls

The Academy for Girls is only two years old at this point but it is growing in many ways each day. There are currently about 64 girls attending the school and receiving a rare type of education in Kenya; one that focuses on individual and active learning. Parents are not responsible to pay any fees and only to bring food for the girls’ meals. In order for a girl to be accepted into the school and to stay at the school the parents must agree not to circumcise her.

A smile in the classroom
A smile in the classroom

While working at this school I got to meet and play with over 60 amazing young Masai girls who with this advance type of education will perhaps follow in Kakenya’s footsteps and continue their education to the university level (albeit in Kenya or abroad). Their smiles and attitude towards learning are strong and healthy. They clearly represent a golden light in the future of Masai women.

Kakenya Center for Excellence 2010
Kakenya Center for Excellence 2010

3 Responses to “Kakenya’s Dream”

  1. Sharon says:

    Great stories and great photos. Thanks, Brooke.

  2. Susan says:

    You are such an excellent photographer and your selection is wonderful, each photo says so much and makes your narrative come alive. I’ve visited the Masai region and am so glad to hear brave women like Kakenya are demanding an end to female mutilation and also giving the positive reward of education. I’m so proud of you for being there, supporting Kakenya’s efforts and for being an additional positive influence in all the girls’ lives.
    lots of love,

  3. sheli nan says:

    dear brooke
    the fotos are heartwarming and the work albeit difficult is filled with joy. when i see those smiles I am so grateful for people like kakenya who has had the strength to grow forward and to be a role model for young and older women alike.
    kudos to you, to your program and to the girls school!!!!

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

The Advocates: Part II

Brooke Blanchard | Posted July 23rd, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Before our Digital Storytelling (DST) students could begin writing about their community and the issues that they see as affecting their quality of life, I asked them to think about or write up their own story. It was an opportunity for these youths to voice, for the first time, their own life experiences; the good, the bad, the tragic, the dark and the light. I’ve learned that a tremendous amount of empowerment and strength can be born from the slightest acknowledgment of past wrong-doings and struggles.

Below I have posted the narratives of our new DST students. One student (David) wrote his own while the others orally recounted their stories to me. I acknowledge this is a long blog, but I encourage readers to find some time here and there to meet these resilient kids and acknowledge the courage it took for them to share with the world the lives they live.

Grace Wanjiru


Grace is a 15-year-old girl born and raised in the Kiamaiko Slum. For the first ten years of her life she had a mother and father and several older sisters and brothers. Although poor, this first stage of her life had few remarkable events and in her telling of it, she says little more than that mentioned. In 2005, everything changed.  Her father contacted malaria and died. In her own words, she says that her father’s death “feels like so long ago now.” Considering the tragic events about to occur to her and her family, this is understandable.

Before he died, Grace’s father was the only family member bringing in money for the household. After his passing, Grace’s teenage sisters became responsible for supporting their family and helping Grace go to school. To do so they took on odd jobs, mainly washing clothes.  Her mother was unable to assist due to the fact that when her husband died she was 6 months pregnant with twins. Furthermore, besides having high blood pressure, Grace’s mother contacted TB and typhoid during her last months of pregnancy. Although they took her to the hospital for treatment, the cost was beyond their means and they were forced to bring her back home. When she gave birth to her twins, one, a girl, was stillborn while the other, a boy, managed to survive for 3 years.

Due to the family’s increasing level of poverty, Grace’s brother, out of need and idleness, became involved in petty crimes, including theft. One night, word reached the family that he had been shot and killed by the police. However no reason was given for the cause of the shooting. The news sent Grace’s mother back to the hospital due to her blood pressure but once again they could not afford the costs of care. On their way back to their home, they came upon the body of Grace’s brother, still lying in the street. After speaking with police, Grace’s sister discovered that her brother had not been caught in the middle of a crime or fleeing a scene. Rather, a police officer saw him, knew that he was a wanted criminal and shot him in the back.

At 15, Grace epitomizes her name with her soft manner of speaking and gentle approach to interacting with others.  With profound gratitude she reiterates that her “sisters took care of everything for her, always providing her with what they could afford.”  She dreams of one day finishing school and working in a hair salon with her sister. She says, “When I grow up, I want to help my mother…and if I have enough money I would like to help street children living in the slum.” In particular, Grace wants to work with and help advocate for slum youth who do not have parents through her Digital Storytelling blogs.

Sarah Janet


Sarah is a 15-year-old girl born and raised in the Huruma Slum. When she was three-years-old her mother passed away. Sarah’s father had been absent since her birth, so her grandfather took her to his village to care for her. Unfortunately, he did not have enough money to provide for the young child and decided to take her to her aunt’s home back in Huruma.

In Sarah’s words, her aunt “was not a good person. She did not like me. She took me [in as] a slave. [She] made me do a lot of work.” Sarah’s aunt did not want her to go to school because she did not have another girl (maid) to work in the house and to do the washing, cooking and retrieving water (an arduous task for any slum dweller). At the age of 5, Sarah was working day and night.

Sometimes, Sarah would tell her aunt that she wanted to go back to her grandfather’s house, but she would refuse in order to keep her free labor. Sarah would also ask to be taken to school but in response, her aunt would say that she would never take her to school because she was not her daughter, that she was too stupid, and that she was a maid first.  When Sarah’s grandfather would come to visit Sarah, her aunt would pretend to love Sarah and treat her well. However, with a sharp warning look, Sarah knew she was not allowed to speak any hinting words to her grandfather about her treatment. Even when she kept her mouth closed, once her grandfather left, Sarah’s aunt would beat her and accuse her of speaking ill about her.

Some days, Sarah’s treatment by her aunt was beyond bearable. Occasionally she was forced to sleep outside in the chicken coop and constantly suffered severe beatings and no food. One day, Sarah was able to go see her grandmother (from different side of family) and told her she was being mistreated. In her own words, Sarah said: “I was very weak, like a tree with no leaves.” When Sarah’s aunt heard about this transgression she beat Sarah “like a pig.”

In 2005, at the age of 10, Sarah’s grandmother went to a headmaster of a nearby school and enrolled Sarah into Phase 1. However, Sarah’s grandmother did not have enough money for fees so she spoke to her husband about helping. Sarah’s grandfather went to visit Sarah and immediately saw how hungry, emaciated, weak and beaten she was. Her aunt could no longer hide her mistreatment. Her grandfather knew she could not stay there but no one was willing to take her in, they all said that Sarah was “not their problem.” So her grandmother and grandfather brought her to their home.

Sarah’s face lights up now when she talks about her grandmother. “She loves me and when I get sick she takes care of me. She saved my life. She says I am her daughter…I owe her my help now. When I grow up and get money I want to save my grandmother. I can make her happy…I will make her happy.” When she finished school, Sarah wants to become a hair dresser and dreams of her own salon. However she has other ambitions too. She wants to become a teacher “like the ones here [Mathare] because they are good to all children.” She wants to start a school that serves children without parents and who don’t have a good life. In her words, Sarah says “I don’t want other children to have a bad life like I did.”

For now, Sarah aims to focus her advocacy blogs for Digital Storytelling on the realities of growing up without parents for slums kids, and the ill treatment they endure at the hands of “family.”

David Odhiambo *Written in his own words


“My name is David Odhiambo. I am 15-years-old. I am Kenyan and I come from Siaya District in Uranga Division at Komenya [slum]. My story is about myself because I want people to know it. If people know [my story], it could help them.

When I was nine-years-old my dad and mom died in an automobile accident while on their way to Kisumu to visit my uncle. The ambulance was able to take them to the hospital but they died while the doctors were treating them.

After that, my aunt took me to her home to live with her. She said she would take care of me. But then she started to talk to me and treat me like her maid. She made me sell bananas, mangos, oranges, and lemons for her and when I went home at mid day I had to go graze the cows. She told me that I would not go to school to get an education because I am her maid for her home.

Three months later, my grandmother came to the house to visit me and see how I was doing. But I was sick with malaria [at the time] and so she took me to the hospital. After some time when the doctor had looked after me I started feeling better and then I was able to talk to my grandmother. She asked me how I was living with my aunt. I told her it was not good because I don’t go to school to get an education, I don’t have good clothes, and she treats me like her maid by making me wash clothes, house, plants, and look after her kids. My grandmother told me to go and prepare my things in a bag.

When she came for me, she and I went to my older brother’s house in Nairobi. When we were on the bus I saw many things beside the road. When we arrived in Nairobi, my brother told me he would take me to school and in the morning when I woke up he took me to buy a school uniform. However the fees for school were too high. Now I am at Undugu School in Mathare.”

David looks forward to becoming a motorbike mechanic once he finishes his education. He wants to go further in school but acknowledges that money will likely prevent this. He is very interested in writing his Digital Storytelling blogs on the environmental issues facing people in the slums. He observes that the slums have become a dumping ground for those who don’t live in the slums but rather in the nicer areas of Nairobi. And yet, the government refuses to offer trash removal services to these outskirts of Nairobi.

Whitney Owuor


Whitney is a very quiet and shy 13-year-old girl from the Dandora slum. Seven years ago, her mother and father died and she and her two sisters were made to live with their step-mother, whom her father had married and had several children with. She is still living there today.

In a statement that explains what is likely to follow, Whitney says that “[her stepmother] only likes her children. She makes us stepchildren work while her children play.” If Whitney and her sisters attempt to play with their friends, they’re beaten. If they go a far distance away to fetch water, they are accused of going to meet with boys and are beaten. When they try to explain to their Uncle the treatment they endure, he refuses to believe them and refuses to help.

Every day they wake up at 5:30am to begin the housework, which they must finish before they can go to school in Mathare. Their stepmother however only gives her children transportation money, forcing Whitney and her sisters to walk the long distance from Dandora to Mathare. When they return home, her stepmother has not made any attempt to cook, clean or wash in the house, so the girls continue their labor. They are able to go to bed around midnight, only to wake up in a few hours to repeat it all over again.

Whitney wants to be able to finish her education and find her “own work and make [her] own money.” She has a strong interest in working with computers and IT. At Digital Storytelling, Whitney is finally able to touch and work with a computer for the first time, and her eagerness is quite perceptive. In her blogs, Whitney would like to write about the suffering of slum children; their lack of food, education, and decent places to live. As she says, “these children can’t live happy.” From the glazed over look in her eyes, it seems clear that Whitney is including herself in that statement.

Justus Kanyingi


Justus is a tall, thin 15-year-old boy who speaks very little. He has lived in the Huruma slum for the past five years. Before he was even born, his father passed away. When asked if he knew how, he silently shakes his head indicating that is all the information even he has on the subject.

After his father’s passing, his mother arranged for Justus to go live in Huruma with his uncle who would likely be able to care for him better than she could. Justus explained that with his mother in the village, “there was not enough food for me.”

Unlike so many slum youths, Justus says that his uncle treats him very well and provides for him anything he may need. The two of them live alone in their small home in the slum and manage each day to find enough food to get by. When asked if he would ever like to return to his mother and his village, he shakes his head no, and says that he would much rather prefer to stay with his uncle.

Justus would like to receive mechanic skills training after finishing his education and looks forward to working on cars and matatus (buses). For his Digital Storytelling blogs, Justus would like to focus on environmental issues and sanitation concerns in the slums. He says in his near whisper voice, “things are not clean… [I] feel very bad.”

3 Responses to “The Advocates: Part II”

  1. Dara Lipton says:

    These are amazing stories, Brooke. Thank you for supporting these kids in their efforts to share them.

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you Brooke for sharing with us the opportunities you are giving these children and the supportive stimulating environment you provide them. Telling their story is an empowering step – let them know we are listening and they are making an impact. We all have a story, but the heartfelt stories they share keep our stories in perspective and inspire us to move forward in our own lives so we can gain strength to help others. YOU are a source of strength and inspiration, Brooke. love always, and so very proud of what you have done with your Internship, Susan

  3. Daniel Hovey says:

    This blog is truly amazing Brooke. I have already shared it with about two dozen other people!

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

The Advocates: Part I

Brooke Blanchard | Posted July 23rd, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Allow me to ask you a question that every humanitarian organization is forced to consider on a daily basis: Which is more beneficial, offering physical care as a service provider or advocating to the local government on behalf of those who can’t do it for themselves? Is one more sustainable then the other? Does sustainability even matter when the most basic necessities of surviving one day are not being met? Where should people’s energy and limited money be directed?

If you are expecting an answer now, you won’t get it. Finding definitive and indubitable answers in the field of human rights is like searching for the missing half of a favorite pair of socks. An infuriating process that is likely to go on and on. However, for those in the field, the answer that most people derive is a constantly shifting compromise of the two options.

How can we serve him best?
How can we serve him best?

Undugu has been a service provider for street children for almost 40 years. However since 2008, they have begun a creative advocacy campaign that both highlights the struggles and mistreatment of street and slum youth as well as provides these youths with skills that could potentially elevate them into a better life.  The Digital Storytelling Program (DST) takes a select group of street and slum youth and provides them with computer training skills as well as basic skills in photography and filming. With these tools, the youths write blogs and capture on film the struggle they face in their communities and in their homes. They open a window for the international community to peek into their dark corner of the world. They become their own advocate and the voice of their unheard generation. In the past two years the blogs have raised a variety of issues including: police harassment, drug use, environmental degradation, poor living conditions, abuse, and poverty. Past blogs can be found here: http://www.undugukenya.org/

A DST student works on a computer for the first time in his life
A DST student works on a computer for the first time in his life

Currently, I have begun a new DST program that is integrated within the Undugu informal schools in the slums of Nairobi. Located in a small classroom, five new students between 13 and 15-years-old are beginning to learn for the first time how to operate a computer, digital camera, and video recorder. These are all skills that almost every other slum child would never be able to receive and may help them obtain better jobs as they grow older. In addition, the students are learning about what human rights are, what advocacy means and how one can become a strong advocate for their cause and people. Imagine the experience of seeing a light go off in a young Kenyan youth’s mind when they understand that their government is “obligated” by international law to provide them with adequate shelter, food and education. It’s like watching Popeye eat a can of spinach to run and fight for his kidnapped prone love Olive Oil.

A class on typing
A class on typing

With three classes in the bag, our students are progressing quickly and eagerly. The thrill of touching a computer and camera for the first time is beginning to wane as they dig in to understand how these machines truly operate.  With new notebooks in hand, each is responsible for keeping their eyes and ears open for the stories they need to report in their blogs. The students all have their own interest and we encourage them to focus on the causes closest to their hearts; be it the environment, abuse, or the loss of a parent.

Even though I am spending years within universities and thousands of dollars in student loans to work in the field of children’s rights and child protection, ultimately, the person who will be able to provide the most and do the most good will be the child him or herself…How is that for an answer?

Never doubt a child witness
Never doubt a child witness

2 Responses to “The Advocates: Part I”

  1. Daniel Hovey says:

    This program has found a great way to answer this question. The childrens’ own voices are the most powerful!

  2. Sharon says:

    Amazing work, Brooke. The children’s stories are vivid and hjaunting, and you’re clearly thinking deeply about how to best help them.

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

A Place of Safety

Brooke Blanchard | Posted July 9th, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , , ,

While roaming around Kenya, the sight of skinny ragged street children becomes numbingly common. After some time, you may find yourself instinctively looking away, walking a bit faster to avoid their eyes, and responding to their pleas for food and money with a rapid “na, pole” (no sorry).  At Undugu however, staff members, volunteers, and older street youths seek out these young children to help reintegrate them with their families or take them to Undugu’s Rehabilitation Center in Kitengela (approx. 40 min outside of Nairobi). This Center acts as a temporary transition shelter, whose number one task is to reintegrate these children back into a safe home and into school.  Occasionally sometimes, the child’s situation makes this almost impossible.

A common sight in the slums
A common sight in the slums

On a recent visit, I was able to interview several street boys about their lives and future aspirations. The details behind these brief stories are devastating and I lack the space to go into them in detail here. All of these boys are unable to be reintegrated due to having no known living relative or one that will agree to take them in. However, what is most important is for readers is  to witness these kids’ strength, resilience, and charm. If you would like to learn more about them please just reply. Also, there are no girls interviewed for several reasons, mainly being that there were only 3 at the Center, two were deaf and one had severe mental disabilities. However, I must say that learning Kenyan Sign language with them was a wonderful treat!

The most amazing kids one could spend a day with
The most amazing kids one could spend a day with

Although I was able to film my visit at Kitengela, my blog is not allowing me to upload the video clips. For the time being I have pictures and the translated transcripts posted. If the technology fairies help me out, I will post the videos shortly. Apologies!

Patrick Muendua


My name is Patrick Muendua. I am 11-years-old

What made you take to the streets?

I was big headed…I wasn’t listening, I refused to listen. I was leaving and at times I would come back [home].

By saying you weren’t listening, what did you mean?

By not being obedient to my parents.

How long have you been on the streets?

One year

From the time you came to the rehabilitation center, have there been any differences to living on the street?



Eating, Bathing, we have everything. We play futbol, we have a very big field.

What would you love to do in the future to better yourself as an individual?

I want to work

What about education?

I want to study and be a pilot.

Paul  Chegue


My name is Paul Chegue. I lived at a place called Banana…my mother passed on and I was staying with my dad. My dad took us to our grandmother’s place and my uncle would beat us…until he chopped off my finger and I was rushed to Kiambu hospital for treatment…and then I took off to the streets.

When you took to the streets, how did you come to meet USK staff?

I met one of the USK teachers and he asked if I would love to go back to school and I said yes.

Is there any difference between USK and street life?



We play futbol, we eat, shower and we are able to sleep comfortably. And…like in the streets…we never sleep comfortably…no food, just begging.

Would you like to better your life to be self-reliant? How would you like to change [your life]?

I would like to go for a mechanic course and when I’m through I would like to assist my other siblings.

Bran Louie


My name is Bran Louie. I come from Gudurai 44. I am 10-years-old.

What made you take to the streets?

My dad and mom passed on when I was very small…and the neighbor came to my rescue and she took me in. She took me to school. And one day I woke up and found that she was dead. She was stabbed with a knife.

How did you come to USK?

I took a long walk and came across a certain boy whom I explained everything that had happened and he took me to his father. I explained to them how my parents had died and the woman who had taken me in. I spent that night at their place and the following day the father of that boy took me to Kasarani police station. They took me to the kids department and then I was relocated to the USK rehabilitation center.

Since you have arrived at USK, have there been any changes in your life?

Yes, here I am able to eat, shower, sleep well and read.

What do you want to do in the future to change your life?

I would love to be a musician.

Brian Omega


My name is Brian Omega. I am 15-years-old.

How did you start your street life?

We were born, two of us, my sister and I, and after the passing on of my dad and mom, we stopped [our] schooling. I lived with my elder sister for 1 ½ months and thereafter she took off. I decided I couldn’t stay there alone and that’s when I left home.

After leaving your place, where did you go to?

I took a bus going to Nairobi. After reaching Nairobi, I started looking for food from begging. I was forced to do odd jobs so that I could afford a plate of meal. Thereafter I took to Mutura Market* and I stayed there for five years.

How did you come to know USK organization?

There’s a teacher from Undugu who asked us if we would love to be assisted and I accepted. She took our names then she came for us the following day.

Since you came to the USK rehabilitation center, have you noticed any difference compared to life on the street?

Yes, here in Undugu I’m able to read, eat, shower, sleep comfortably without being disturbed…and like…street life…there is no peace. You’re beaten anytime. At times you go on empty stomach.

What would you love to do in the future to be self-reliant?

I would like to go for a mechanic course so that I would be able to assist my family.

As a personal note, I found it incredible that many of these boys talked about “taking care of their families” when all of them either lacked one or were told by their families that they were unwanted. Further, no child expressed anger or frustration for their circumstances and some even placed the blame on themselves despite their abusive pasts. Their perseverance and hope for the future is infectious, and for me, leaving this quiet tucked away compound at the end of the day was tremendously difficult.

My "escort" to the road
My "escort" to the road

One more group hug for the road!
One more group hug for the road!

4 Responses to “A Place of Safety”

  1. [...] days to go back to Massachusetts. I will become wrapped up in my studies and will no longer have children begging, “just 10 bob, please (11 cents).” The members of Hakijamii not only live within a society that [...]

  2. Erin says:

    Good job Brooke!

  3. sheli nan says:

    dearest brooke
    you are doing such good work – i am so proud of you – your kind loving heart – mixed with your amazing brain – what a combo!! please stay safe – how fortunate for your darling little kids – make sure you sing and play percussion and besto of luck

  4. Sharon Drager says:

    As always, a wonderful, insightful post, and great photos.

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

Poverty, Violence…and the Lunch Lady

Brooke Blanchard | Posted June 19th, 2010 | Africa

In 1994, Adam Sandler and Chris Farley performed an inspiring song titled “Lunch Lady Land” on Saturday Night Live.  Thanks to this national treasure we can always feel assured that Lunch Lady and her paramour Sloppy Joe are continuing their domestic life in greasy and hair net bliss.

However Mr. Sandler touched upon something else in his song that has a (perhaps) more profound impact and international significance than men in drag and dancing pizzas.  He opened his performance with a dedication to “the person who more than anyone else puts young people on the right path.”  In many ways he was right. Today the implementation of  a “Free Lunch Program” in slum or poverty stricken schools is considered to be the vital component in increasing attendance, lowering levels of child labor, and reducing the potential for slum violence.

School Lunch
School Lunch

Potatos and Beans....Another yummy lunch at Mathare Undugu School

With no sustainable income, slum kids are constantly on the search for that day’s meal. The ‘animal spirit’ of survival flickers in the back of their wide open eyes while they “hustle” for enough Kenyan Shillings to buy Chapatti (flat bread) or maybe even some beef to eat. While obsessed with scavenging, school and education get left behind. Glue sniffing, the consumption of toxic homemade alcohol, rape, and other street crimes become attractive pastimes to either support the food hunt or just to forget their circumstances.

Boy in Alley
Boy in Alley

A young boy walks through a slum alley filled with waste

Two Young Boys
Two Young Boys

Two very young boys walk alone through a Nairobi slum

Due to the hustling drive, the lack of education and a mind-numbing idleness, slum youth-particularly boys-can become extremely vulnerable to the polarizing rhetoric and manipulation of Kenya’s ambitious political parties. Commonly known throughout Kenya but not outside of the country is that many of the people who swung the panga blades (machete-like knives) or pulled the triggers during the 2007 post-election violence were young slum boys who were offered 50 Kenyan Shillings (approximately .62 cents) to kill civilians by affiliates of particular political parties.

Young man and Pool Table
Young man and Pool Table

Finding ways to pass the time

Imagine the effects then, if every primary and secondary school provided a free lunch program for its students.  Kenya recently passed a law making primary education free. Thus for a period of several years, a slum dwelling child could have a place to go to 5 days of the week that offered a vital education and a reliable hot meal.

The Undugu Society of Kenya believes that providing a free lunch to students will increase school attendance and lower the amount of child labor, street crimes and drug use around the slums. Furthermore, with a less urgent need to find money to buy a meal and an education that empowers youth to think independently, the ability for politicians to buy lives would become less likely.  Undugu’s free lunch program occurs in all its slum schools but funding is a constant worry and for many other Kenyan schools the only reason why no such program exists. Currently an effort is being made by USK and others to force the government to increase their (staggeringly low) allocation of funds towards youth and programs like “free lunch.” Nevertheless it is an uphill battle with a stubborn government.

Little Girl Eating
Little Girl Eating

A hot meal at lunch time

Child Licking a Spoon
Child Licking a Spoon

Perhaps we should ask Mr. Sandler to present the case in his way to parliament.

3 Responses to “Poverty, Violence…and the Lunch Lady”

  1. Iain says:

    Very interesting article and great pictures! It’s fantastic that something as cheap and simple as a free school meal can make all the difference to these childrens lives.

  2. Daniel says:

    This reminds me of “Three Cups of Tea.” One of the arguments for building all of those schools in this region was to give another option for the children to recieve education, food, and shelter rather than just the Taliban schools.

  3. Renee milne says:

    Free and reduced breakfast/lunch program is used quite a bit in my school all year. In the summer, our school district has two locations (schools) where students can stil get free and reduced breakfast and lunchu. Our numbers have increased the over the year due to the economy and many local layoffs. Education is the key and right first step, maybe some will find education more valuable, besides getting to eat. Once their basic needs are meant, educate the population!

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

“You can’t preach water then drink wine”

Brooke Blanchard | Posted June 14th, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , ,

UPDATE: Last night about 1 mile away from my apartment, two homemade gasoline bombs exploded In Nairobi’s Uhuru Park during a crowded prayer rally arranged by Kenyan church leaders opposing the new constitution (which will be voted on in a referendum August 4th ). At least 6 people were killed and around 100 were injured. The tension between the “No” and “Yes” parties has been building for some time, and with the impact of the 2007 post-election violence still reverberating throughout the country, the current escalation of violence is cause for major concern. The poor and uneducated youth living in Nairobi slums are particularly vulnerable to the political rhetoric as those in power on either side find them easily manipulable (I’ll explain the relationship between slum youth and political violence in a future entry). Tragedy: Explosion in Uhuru Park

For Quick Background on the New Constitution and Referendum:

Two Kenyans sit across the room from each other. One is a young professional woman about 20 years old. The other is a deeply religious teenage boy from the slums. They represent the opposing sides of the new constitution debate, and here in this small attic room they launch into a heated argument. Although entangled with both their personal beliefs and life experiences, their argument conveys the general opinions of both sides. Here is a portion of what I heard:

Young Woman: How can these church leaders, who call themselves Christians, spread lies to the people of Kenya?! That is not their job. They must choose between being a spiritual leader or a politician. They cannot be both. They tell people that the constitution legalizes abortion when it clearly states that abortion is only allowed if a licensed doctor believes that the mother’s life is in danger!

Young Boy: Well, if you really look at it, it is legalizing abortion. It’s saying it’s OK. Anyone could get some medical person to say they can do it.

Young Woman: NO! They just want you to think that. Listen to me, my sister died and do you know why? Because she had a bad pregnancy, it killed her. If she had been able to lose the baby she would still be alive today and she would be voting YES on the constitution. Priest don’t marry, they don’t get pregnant, they don’t have children…They don’t know what it is like.

Young Boy: That is very sad

Young Woman: Not until you lose blood (family member), will you be able to understand

Young Boy: You make a good point, but religion is what guides us every day. Without it I would not be here, I may not be alive. I could be still living on the streets. These people are standing up for what God says is right and wrong. They would not lie.

Young Woman: These priest travel to poor rural areas, telling people how they should live while at the same time they buy land and wealth for themselves. They are only afraid of their personal loss and they are using abortion and lies about government seizure of property as an excuse to become powerful political leaders. They may be stirring up violence and anger based on incorrect information. They cannot preach water then drink wine!

Young Boy: Again it is a good point. But you know what will happen don’t you? No matter what the outcome, there may be war come August….

"NO" Party
"NO" Party

The NO party believes the new constitution will only benefit those who wrote it and not Kenyan citizens

The YES party believes that church leaders who oppose the new constitution are using religion as a political tool which will harm women and violate their human rights

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

Slum Schools: Food or Thought?

Brooke Blanchard | Posted June 11th, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , , ,

While working with refugee youth in my previous life before graduate school, I discovered a striking difference between American and refugee kids. From the moment of their birth, American kids are trained to prepare and plan for not only most hours of the day, but for well into their future lives as well. Preschool applications are in high demand because apparently that will determine the child’s Ivy League college admissions status. We are constantly preparing for a future that we naturally assume with certainty will arrive.

This is not the same for everyone.

The refugee youth I worked with had difficulty grasping the concept of not just a future that involved tomorrow, but one that could be years from now. Few children and teenagers knew what they wanted to do for a job let alone a career. The same is true for the street and slum youth the Undugu Society of Kenya (USK) works with. 24 hours a day, the child’s prerogative is to literally “survive” the day. Where will I find food? Where will I sleep? Trapped in this struggle, achieving a basic education can be considered a luxury or even a waste of time.  When the choice is between working at a garbage dump for a few Kenyan shillings to buy a meal or learning to write the days of the week, it should come as no surprise that child labor statistics in Kenya are skyrocketing.

Young students resting in empty classroom in Undugu Mathare informal school

USK has 4 informal schools in the Nairobi slums. Instead of grades there are 4 ‘phases,’ beginning with phase 1 which has children age 10 and 11 but who due to malnutrition, have the physical appearance of kindergarteners. The hope is that by the end of phase 4 the student will be willing and able to integrate into a formal Kenyan school or begin one of Undugu’s vocation skills training programs.

The informal schools have around 200 students and 6 teachers. The buildings are good for slum dwellings but almost all rooms lack electricity and the roofs are tin sheets with plenty of holes to allow the room to flood during a heavy rain. In one school, the teachers described to me how they must use the same toilets as the children but that there are no doors to provide privacy. A teacher described it as being brought down to “the lowest level of degradation.” There are no playgrounds but rather fields or cleared areas to allow students to run around. While walking through these fields you are not immune from the waste that litters all the streets and on several visits, human feces.

Geometry lesson in a Phase 2 class Kibera.

As bleak as this is, I must write that upon visiting these schools, I have never met a more friendly, open, and energetic group of kids. In their formal English training, each child attempts to shake my hand and say hello. They run to show me their work books and demonstrate the games they created with garbage and barbed wire as jumping ropes. Some students are wearing tattered rags and broken flip flops. The image of a young boy in dirty ripped clothes but also cracked shinning black dress shoes that softly click upon the rugged cement floors simultaneously makes me smile and tear up.

"Hello Madam!"

Jmping rope made out of plastic bag parts

Smiles at the Mathare school

The desired plan for these amazing kids is not grand. There is little chance that they will entirely remove themselves from the life they know now. However, the USK schools are attempting to offer the students the possibility of a future beyond tomorrow.

7 Responses to “Slum Schools: Food or Thought?”

  1. [...] the people’s settlements many families send their children to private informal schools funded by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). These informal schools provide children who cannot [...]

  2. [...] the people’s settlements many families send their children to private informal schools funded by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations). These informal schools provide children who cannot [...]

  3. Aaron says:

    Every child you help/teach will be better for your life having taken a path that leads you to them.

  4. Daniel says:

    You are destined to help these children!

  5. Christy Gillmore says:

    I think the point you make about children living day to day, just surviving and not thinking about the future v. children in the U.S. that have a path paved for their entire life is spot on. It’s absurd, really, the obsession of getting children into preschool for fear that otherwise they will never amount to anything.

    It’s vital for organizations like Undugu to become involved in these children’s lives, so that they have a chance to think about their future.

  6. Anna Isaacs says:

    If anyone should be forced to blog, it should be you! I am so excited for you that you are in Kenya and look forward to frequent updates. Keep up the good work.

  7. Renee milne says:

    So heartbreaking, but encouraging at the same time. I’m so much more thankful for where I work and the students who attend there.

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

An Introduction to the Slums

Brooke Blanchard | Posted June 11th, 2010 | Africa

Tags: , ,

This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly. Narrow ways, diverging to the right and left…where neither ray of light nor breath of air appears to come.

The passage above was written in the travelogue ‘American Notes’ by Charles Dickens in 1842 during a walking tour of the Five Points slum in New York City. His vivid details of the 19th century urban slum and the lives that were surviving within ignite the senses in all their foul glory. Although rife with unnecessary upper class disdain and misunderstandings, Dickens predecessor of the modern day travel blog was one the first thoughts that came to my head when it dawned on me that I may not have the adequate skills to convey the modern African urban slum.

However here is my attempt….Don’t judge me too harshly Mr. Dickens:

A large alleyway leading to various homes

Upon entering the slum, you immediately feel the world close in, the light disappears, and the air turns rancid. Homes are literally shacks made up of material the occupants were lucky enough to stumble upon in their scavenging efforts. Rigged tin sheets, rotten wooden boards, and crumbling red mud and grass are nailed, packed or tied together in crooked patterns to form small square rooms barely higher than five feet. Swaying back and forth on an exposed wire is a single light bulb illuminating the cramped quarters inside. A single mattress may have been obtained if fortunate, but if so it can be possible for 5 or 6 people to be sharing it. There are no glass windows in these shacks, or doors for that matter. A single curtain of thin material hangs to provide a mocking sense of privacy.

A glance into a tailoring shop in Kibera slum

The ground is dirt mixed with trash and after the rains a bog is formed of mud and waste made up of all you can imagine. The alleys are an impossible maze of twists and turns and are narrow enough at times for only one person shuffle by sideways. Running down the middle of these alleys is a trench which carries the flow of sewage water, plastic bags and old shoes which on more than one occasion I witnessed people picking up and trying on. Emaciated packs of dogs and cats scurry through their own passageways in search of food or trash that smells close enough like food. Children wander around unattended and if lucky are wearing shoes. However, wherever I travel a high pitched chorus of “Allow! Ow are you?!” mixed with giggles and laughter trail beside me.

Young children beside small market in Kibera

A newly paved road in the Gomongo Slum. To make the road, the governemnt bulldozed any building in its way including half a school

In the past week I have been to four slums around the hectic and crowded city of Nairobi Kenya: Mathare, Kibera, Dandora, and Gomongo. In total, over 2 million people live inside these and other Kenyan slums. To offer some perspective, the entire population for the state of Utah is just over 2.5 million. The largest slum in Africa, Kibera, is approximately the size of Central Park and houses 1 million of the total slum dwelling population.

As an outsider, and a white ‘muzungu’ one at that, my presence in the slums is simultaneously an attraction and an irritation. Besides the obvious safety concern, taking out my camera to capture the images of the slum feels like an invasion of privacy that turns the suffering of a people into merely a tourist attraction. You grab the shots you can, but as future notice to readers, when it comes to obtaining illustrated evidence of my work or allowing the poorest of the poor to maintain their dignity, I will choose the later and simply work on achieving the descriptive powers or Mr. Dickens.

9 Responses to “An Introduction to the Slums”

  1. iain says:

    But these slums are still home to the people who live here. Also, while there is violence and poverty galore, the challenges of living here have produced a remarkable capacity to survive and cooperate….

  2. Susan says:

    Your words and pictures powerfully convey so much. Thank you for being there, helping others and enlightening us through your blog and remember, they are lucky to have you! Take care and love always. xxoo Susan

  3. Daniel says:

    I am SO Proud of you my love! Keep up the great work these people deserve your help!

  4. Michele says:

    Well said. You paint a powerful picture. I especially liked the Dickens tie in and the association between Utah and Central Park. Very you:)xoM

  5. Greg Fried says:

    Your word pictures convey at least as much as the posed photos…Thank you for including me Ms. Dickens.

  6. Brooke Blanchard says:

    This is very True and as a photographer I want to capture the slums visually. However it’s a balance between security and dignity. It’s a wobbly tight rope walk that I’m sure I’ll become more comfortable with over time. Good To hear from you Uncle!!

  7. Sharon says:

    Wow. What a word portrait. Thanks you for bringing this world to light with clarity and discretion.

  8. john blanchard says:

    but dont forget that a picture can be worth a 1000 words

  9. Jane says:

    Thanks for putting me on this list and for your warm and lovely note.

Leave a Reply

Security Code:

Fellow: Brooke Blanchard

Undugu Society of Kenya