Stephen is a 16-year-old boy from Nairobi, Kenya. I’ve known him through letters since he was about 12, when my in-laws sponsored his education as a Christmas gift to me and my husband. Both his parents died of AIDS sometime before 2009–he is one of 1,200,000 AIDS orphans in Kenya alone.

Stephen grew up in a slum of Nairobi called Dagoretti. He still lives there when he is not at boarding school. I wanted to find out more about where Stephen is from, so Karen Bohn, a volunteer with Friends of Ngong Road, the organization through which Stephen is sponsored, emailed me a photo:


She wrote:

“Stephen lives in Kawangware, one of the villages in Dagoretti, with his 54-year-old aunt and three cousins.  It sounds as though everyone in the household is healthy, and that Stephen eats three meals a day when he is home, though not always the most balanced diet. The house is neatly arranged but it is noisy because it is near the main road. They buy and use borehole water (an open well), and use a pit latrine, which is available to all the people who live in their compound (small neighborhood within the ‘village’).

“The slum has dirt roads, which you probably saw from the photo turn into muck when it rains. There are better and worse areas of the slum, but as is typical in any slum in Sub-Saharan Africa, it is characterized by no access to water, sanitation, or electricity. That is starting to change, as I have seen more electricity each time I’ve been in Dagoretti, though it is hardly prevalent. There are many small businesses along the main roads, including food vendors, tailors, small ‘manufacturers’, used clothing stores, little convenience stores (and I mean little), etc.  In some places, you’ll detect a noticeable stench. There are animals wandering around everywhere — goats, chickens, dogs — and I can’t imagine how they keep straight whose goat or chicken is whose. In Dagoretti, there are very few vehicles, though many of the roads would accommodate a vehicle — if you could avoid the potholes. I swear some of the potholes could swallow an entire car!”

Dagoretti is where Stephen lives. But it’s not all of him. As Karen says, “His aunt says that Stephen helps out at home and does well at school, and is a hard worker.”

I’ll let him introduce himself. Here’s one of his letters, from this past spring:

Dear Jessica,

            How are you? I hope you are fine. I am very excited because you wrote a letter to me and I received it.

            I did my Kenya Certificate of Primary Education and I attained three-hundred and seventy-five from Jagiet Academy. With those marks, I went to a very good and interesting school called by the name Chinga Boys High School. [Go, Stephen!]

          The school compound is very nice. It is surrounded with flowers all over, including the classes and the office. The food there is well-cooked and it is healthier. Not only that, I also participate in games such as football and athletics. The teachers are teaching well, such that one can understand clearly and easily.

Yours faithful,


Stephen is always very formal, I’m sure because English is his second (or third?) language and he’s naturally polite. (He also might be thinking, What do I say to a woman in Arlington Heights, Illinois?) Now that he’s in high school, my last letter to him had a lot of the questions I’d initially asked him when he was 12. I wanted to know if anything had changed. The remaining constant is football, which he usually mentions at least once. Here’s his latest:

Dear Jessica,

            I hope you are fine. I would like to answer the questions that were in your letter.

            My favorite sport is football. I play it at school when I am free. I like football because it exercises my body and makes my bones strong. My best friend is called Dender.

            My hobby is drawing and taking care of animals. Where I live, I love the environment that surrounds us, also our country since I am proud to be a Kenyan. I live with my aunt, who is caring and hard-working. Her job is selling cosmetics.

            My favorite subject is Physics and Biology. [At Chinga Boys School, a boarding school] we wake up at 5 in the morning and go to class where we have the preps until 6:30. We eat rice and beans and sometimes ugali, which will make us strong.

            When I grow up I would like to be an engineer. I would like to travel outside my country to see what I have never seen.

Yours faithful,


Very least of all, without my in-laws’ generosity and the people of Ngong Road, I would not have the experience of corresponding with a boy a world away. Most of all, without those people, Stephen would not have the opportunities he now does–to learn and, eventually, to see the world.

14 thoughts on “Stephen

  1. We sat down with our kids yesterday to write letters to Santa, while reading their wish list, I paused to reflect on my own childhood and the struggles we went through financially to have basic things at home. Thankfully, my children will never have to go through any of that, my constant struggle is finding a balance between giving them what I never had while making them appreciate what we already do, and getting them to realize how blessed we are to have each other.

    I think their wish list might have room for one more thing…and it isn’t for themselves. Thanks for sharing Stephen with us.

  2. I loved this, Jess! Back in 2002, I spent a week in Nairobi (and neighboring, smaller villages) doing humanitarian work – helping to paint schools, visit with children (the majority of whom where orphans because of AIDS), etc. Most of them had never ever seen a white person and thought we were some sort of magicians. What I remember is all of the children were just that – children! They ran and played and shrieked and smiled and you would never know they lived in a slum and used a latrine on a daily basis. For a few years, I kept in contact with a little boy through letters, and I would buy him various farm animals for Christmas (a goat only costs $30). By far, one of the most humbling experiences of my life. Thanks for reminding me I need to start giving back again! 🙂

  3. I love these letters. They made me smile, even though my heart hurts for his loss and his home village. Thank you for sharing that with us. He sounds like a very pleasant and polite young man. I hope that he gets to fulfill his dream of being an engineer and traveling.

  4. Love this one! I’ve had this email sitting in my inbox since before Sandy hit, and I’m so happy to have read it. I love Stephen! I can’t wait to get my boys into correspondence programs, too 🙂

  5. Jessica –
    I loved reading this letter. We here at Friends of Ngong Road are so pleased that you and Stephen have developed a good relationship. There are so many boys and girls in the slums of Nairobi who need help and we strive to help make a difference – one child at a time. In Stephen’s case this is very evident. A boy from the slums would never have been able to get into Chinga Boys Schools without support. As we say in our mission – we want to enable kids to “transform their lives”. That has certainly happened here. Thanks for all you do! You are making a difference.

    • It’s such a pleasure — I very often think about how grateful I am that there are people and organizations out there working hard for the causes I care about, that so many people care about. So thank YOU–very much.

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