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."

The Advocates: Part II

23 Jul

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.”

Posted By Brooke Blanchard

Posted Jul 23rd, 2010


  • Daniel Hovey

    July 23, 2010


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

  • Susan

    July 28, 2010


    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

  • Dara Lipton

    July 29, 2010


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

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