The world remains resistant to acknowledge the severity of the climate crisis while the need for decisive and comprehensive action on climate change grows. There are climate change deniers who choose to fight against or ignore the science and the increasingly obvious signs, but for the most part, the average person finds the climate crisis too overwhelming to manage, so we just act like it’s not affecting our daily lives.
In recent years the continent has faced several devastating extreme events. According to the State of the Climate in Africa 2019 report, a multi-agency publication coordinated by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), Tropical Cyclone Idai was among the most destructive tropical cyclones ever recorded in the southern hemisphere and southern Africa suffered extensive drought in 2019. In contrast, the Greater Horn of Africa shifted from very dry conditions in 2018 and most of 2019 to floods and landslides associated with heavy rainfall in late 2019.
The report details how these extreme weather changes are threatening human health and safety, food and water security, and socio-economic development in Africa; proof that more Africans should be agitating for climate action.
This Is Africa spoke to Kenyan climate activist, Wanjũhĩ Njoroge about grassroots activism, the implications of complacency, and how gender bias encroaches on even the most valiant collective effort.
This Is Africa (TIA): All climate activists are heroes in their own way. Can you tell me your origin story?
Wanjũhĩ Njoroge (WN): I was born and brought up in a small village at the foot of Mount Kenya with a tree hugger for a Father. Although he lived in Nairobi, every weekend he would come home, and he would bring tree seedlings that we would plant together. From the very start, he entrusted me with their care, this, and the fact that I was being introduced to practical agriculture in school was the genesis of my forest stewardship.
TIA: It must have been gratifying to help them grow
WN: Yes. I became so in love and protective of them to the point that when they matured, my father had to ask permission and negotiate with me before any were cut down. Unfailingly part of the bargain was for every cut tree, several more were planted to take its place.
TIA: So, your father led you to your love of nature?
WN: Him, my mother, and of course Prof. Wangari Maathai. My father may have initiated the more hands-on aspects and my primary school may have taught me about mulching, drip irrigation, and so on, but it was my mother that exposed me to books. Without her, I would not have read about Prof Wangari Maathai in the newspaper or known she was from the same region. It was such an inspiration seeing her fight for Uhuru Park and Karura forest. I saw how she nurtured movements of women who were conscious of the environment; this shaped my love for nature and my activism.
TIA: How has that inspired your work today?
WN: It led me to do a lot of work in the community and try my hand at even larger causes. In 2017 we were setting up a library in my village, which meant going home quite often. Between Nyeri and Nairobi, there’s a forest route that we’d use, and I remember taking photos upon photos of trucks carrying logs out of the forest. I’d lament to my parents, but I ultimately kept it to myself. But in 2018 there was a serious water shortage and being an agricultural village, I knew it was only a matter of time before conflicts started. Because not everyone has the resources to sink a borehole and neighbours would either start stealing or fighting over this vital resource. So, it was finally time to act and that’s how #SaveOurForestsKE was born.
TIA: While mobilising for the #SaveOurForestsKE and other causes what difficulties have you encountered?
WN: My experience has been a double-edged sword. There are days when it’s been easy, for instance, I’ve done a lot of work in education so when I want to change perceptions I always start at home. When engaging with parents and communities for example I use the land as an anchor. Like in the case of subdivision; if you have ancestral land which is divided and shared over generations in the end, they’ll be nothing left. But if you educate your children, they will buy more land to add to the existing share. And so, it goes with finite resources if they are not replenished, they’ll eventually run out.
TIA: And the other side of the sword?
WN: Forests are very very emotive! I learned that the hard way and paid a painful price. In 2018 the same community that had reached out to me to fight for this forest, the minute government imposed the moratorium (there will be no harvesting forest products for the next couple of months) they came at me saying I want to take away their source of life. Initially, I was mad and broken but then the community elders reached out to me and explained what I was doing wrong. They said the community did not yet understand why it was important to conserve the environment or fight for the forest. So, they encouraged me to have a meeting in the chief’s camp with all stakeholders including the Kenya Forest Service to talk about other benefits that could be derived from the forest and the alternatives to cutting down trees.
TIA: Sounds like it was a teachable moment for everyone.
WN: Yes, it’s taken the rough patches for me to appreciate that we cannot afford to leave even one person behind. When it comes to activism it’s important to get on the ground and in the streets to put pressure, yes, but also to use diplomacy too.
TIA: Speaking of leaving no one behind, you’ve had this very macro effect but what are some of the smaller things that you do every day to ‘chip at’ the climate crisis?
WN: For one I carry my trash with me if I cannot dispose of it properly. People have a terrible culture of throwing trash out the window or on the road! I always ask the people around me, “who is supposed to collect the litter? then when there’s clogging in the drainage you will blame the government, yet you know you contributed to the blockage.” I also try and reduce single-use plastic by carrying around a refillable water bottle and not ordering takeaways. If I don’t have time to go to the hotel to sit and eat, I’ll carry food from home; no takeaway also reduces my chances of being exposed to COVID-19 and ensures I eat healthier foods.
TIA: As we discuss these small changes, it reflects the current conversation that everyone must do their part to get the climate crisis under control. But considering that Africa only contributes two to three percent of the world’s emissions, do you think that Africans specifically are the ones who should be making these kinds of daily changes or pushing themselves to do more when we are not the biggest contributors?
WN: Climate action is for everybody. I put the stress on Africa because of our vulnerability, not just to climate change and its effects, but to everything. Look at how exposed we were when the locusts hit Kenya or how badly flooding impacts communities. When there is drought, we die and so do our animals. We already have climate refugees, and the numbers are growing. Are we ready? Do we have the capacity to manage the restructuring needed to relocate climate crisis victims? This is the level of our vulnerability.
But it has to be a collective effort. We must push the African union continentally or COMESA regionally to work towards climate action. It cannot be one person or country agitating for change. We should speak in one voice against these giants who say that because they pay for their missions they can continue emitting.
TIA: So, our level of vulnerability and exposure should motivate us as a people?
WN: No, we are also resource-rich and should therefore fight to restore nature. It has to be us; no one is coming to do it for us.
TIA: Let’s talk solutions. You’ve spoken about how conserving our forests can have a positive impact on climate. What other adaptation solutions do you endorse?
WN: My work in the restoration space has made me realise that when we have weak policies there are no solutions that can work effectively. Strict policies on forests, fishing, and all-natural resources are what we need. Take Kenya’s Mau Complex for example, the situation is worsening because of loopholes (the Mau forest’s ecosystem is threatened by ongoing encroachment, heavy deforestation, and illegal settlements). We should ensure loopholes are sealed and solid policies enforced.
TIA: When it comes to policy and advocacy, what has been your experience as an African female climate activist?
WN: I have an experience that I have never shared publicly. Last year I was privileged to attend the African Union’s Heads of State summit and as we were waiting to enter a very high-level partner discussion, I was speaking to one of the senior diplomats. I told him I’m a climate change activist and when he shared where he was from, I told him their island was at risk of disappearing. I suppose he felt challenged because he then asked me if I was married, when I said I wasn’t he told me, “You’re doing these things because of what you lack”.
This man was way older than my father and the hurt I felt I cannot put into words. He looked at me as a young woman and felt the only way he could argue with me was to put me down using my gender. This is just one of the many nasty experiences that I’ve had because when we were fighting for the forest in 2018, I experienced a fair share. Wangari Maathai went through far worse than me because with activism and anything that goes against the norm, people will always try to bring you down.
TIA: It is unfortunate, the not so micro-aggression women face even in high-level work environments. Looking at the flip side, what are some of the highlights that you’ve had whether peer-related or personal?
WN: I’ve done many things but the one I hold as my biggest success is still #SaveOurForestsKE. First, I get teary thinking that we got a moratorium that lasted three years (it was partially lifted last year). Secondly, the birth of young activists in that county. Many of them always tell me that this is how they got their voice and every time I look back at that moment where they risked it all for the sake of their forest, I feel very proud.
TIA: That brings me to a fun and final question, if you were the ultimate world power for a day and could make any generational changes, what would they be?
WN: I doubt it cannot be achieved in a day because generational change, movement building, or any long-term change can only be realised over time. But I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot… how do we lose the self for the greater good? Because I feel like the world is very selfish and world leaders enforce policies that favour them. So, for me, the thing I would change if I had the power, is this self-centered culture. I would make the world people-centered, prioritising the common good over personal good because when we share common goals, we will do more for our planet and in the end, we will have more for everyone.
About Wanjũhĩ Njoroge: She is the founder the Founder of People Planet Africa, an Enterprise involved in people centered Forest Protection and Restoration, Sustainability and Inclusive Development that incorporates rural communities which constitute 70% of Africa’s population. She has gained extensive experience working with rural communities and assisting government agencies and organizations incorporate sustainability into their businesses thus increasing their positive impact and profit.
She ran one of the biggest campaigns in 2018 dubbed #SaveOurForestsKEwhich led to a total ban on forest harvesting and policy change.
Wanjũhĩ was invited by H.E Antonio Gutiérrez, the United Nations Secretary General, alongside Greta Thunberg to offer key insights on grass root mobilization for young and bottom up approach in fighting for a cause at the opening panel of the Climate Summit held in New York at United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) 2019.
This article is written as part of a storytelling series called: Symbiocene – Finding Coexistence: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire and Us, a collection commissioned in partnership with African Crossroads. The contents of the series are the sole responsibility of This Is Africa Trust, and cannot be regarded as reflecting the official position of Hivos Foundation.