Brooke Blanchard

Brooke Blanchard (Undugu Society of Kenya): In 2004, Brooke conducted research on child labor abuses in Ecuador and worked as a physical therapist for children. In 2009 she worked as the Youth Program Coordinator at the International Rescue Committee. At the time of her fellowship Brooke was pursuing her MA in International Affairs at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. After her fellowship, Brooke wrote: “After working in the slums, I see myself as unbelievably fortunate. It was very trying at times, so I think I’m proud of getting through the most difficult aspects."

An Introduction to the Slums

11 Jun

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.

Posted By Brooke Blanchard

Posted Jun 11th, 2010


  • Jane

    June 11, 2010


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

  • john blanchard

    June 11, 2010


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

    • Brooke Blanchard

      June 11, 2010


      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!!

  • Sharon

    June 11, 2010


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

  • Greg Fried

    June 11, 2010


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

  • Michele

    June 11, 2010


    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

  • Daniel

    June 14, 2010


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

  • Susan

    June 16, 2010


    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

  • iain

    July 11, 2010


    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….

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