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."

Slum Schools: Food or Thought?

11 Jun

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.

Posted By Brooke Blanchard

Posted Jun 11th, 2010


  • Renee milne

    June 11, 2010


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

  • Anna Isaacs

    June 12, 2010


    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.

  • Christy Gillmore

    June 14, 2010


    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.

  • Daniel

    June 14, 2010


    You are destined to help these children!

  • Aaron

    June 18, 2010


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

  • […] 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 […]

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