First Impressions: Reflections from CYL member Emily Hoerner

I expected to find people mired in the depths of their own misery. What I found was a vibrant and dynamic collection of communities and neighborhoods.


I had been fascinated with Africa since about my freshman year of high school, when I saw the movie “Hotel Rwanda.” This interest drove me to find out as much about the continent as I could, and it drove me to study international development in college. By my junior year I was studying urban development in low-income countries; the bulk of the countries I learned about where in Africa. When I was presented with the opportunity to study in Nairobi, Kenya, the cosmopolitan hub of East Africa, I jumped on it.

Fast forward a couple months: I’m sitting in front of the Hilton in downtown Nairobi with my fellow study abroad students, about to meet the handful of men and women, all members of a local community-based organization, who would be our “tour guides” for our first introduction to Kibera, one of the largest slums on the entire continent.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Kibera is roughly the size of Central Park. Census figures vary widely and can range from 250,000 people to over a million.

**(Kibera PHOTO)

Getting off the matatu (Kenya’s slapdash, chaotic, and brilliant version of public transportation), I walked into one of Kibera’s many entrances, my eyes wide and my heart pounding. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting. I had heard a lot about the miserable conditions: the cramped living quarters, the astonishingly low incomes, the lack of regular waste removal and potable water. I guess, if I’m honest, I pictured tiny old women with scarves wrapped around their heads sitting in the narrow corridors between houses weeping.

It turns out I couldn’t have been more wrong. I expected to find people mired in the depths of their own misery. What I found was a vibrant and dynamic collection of communities and neighborhoods. I found blaring reggae music. I found brightly-colored khangas (large squares of multi-purpose cloth). I found ripe, red tomatoes, juicy mangos, and dangling bunches of bananas.

**(Children In Kibera)

I don’t really know what I was expecting, but it certainly wasn’t this. Kibera’s narrow corridors were thronged with people going about their everyday business – buying, shopping, selling, going to work. The people I saw were happy, purposeful, productive. They were so different from the crying grannies of my imagination that it took me a while to wrap my head around it.

I think the most important impression I took away from that day is that residents of slum communities are, in a lot of the ways that count, just like you and me. The one thing I didn’t find in Kibera was self-pity, and that was perhaps the most surprising thing of all. (And it’s worth nothing that this impression of productivity and purpose, this lack of pity, is something that that I perceived in every other slum I visited while in Kenya).

One of the things I appreciate most about Can YA Love is that we aren’t driven by pity. It’s there in our mission statement: One of our core values is respect, and during my time with this awesome organization I have seen that respect is present in everything we do. It’s present in the conversations we have stateside about how to build our organization from the ground up, and it’s present in the fact that our Kenya team is staffed entirely by Kenyans who live and work in the communities they represent. The people I work with are dynamic, excited and so passionate about the work we do to spread our vertical farming systems.

So check back often for updates. We’ve got a lot of great new ideas and programs in the works, and we can’t wait to share them with you.