News has never been greener, from corporate green-prints and multi-lateral alphabet soup to pop music and dystopian cinema, but ordinary people’s voices remain scarce in the ongoing mainstream buzz for climate sustainability. “If you are not at the table, you are probably in the menu,” is especially telling for ordinary Africans erased out of ecological decision-making by the consultative opacity of conscience capitalism. African Crossroads’ 2021 conference not only tapped voices of the young and the have-nots but went further afield to amplify the voices of nature herself. The conference ended with an eight-bullet collective manifesto for climate justice in Africa that still remains open to new perspectives.
African Crossroads is a progressive collective made up of community organisers, artists, tech innovators, academics and others. Participants in the Hivos-supported initiative collaborate across countries throughout the year and regroup for a conference during the last quarter. In the wake of the pandemic, the 2021 and 2020 conferences took the hybrid format, screened on Zoom and in eight physical hubs, Afrotopia (Harare, Zimbabwe), Barefeet Theatre (Lusaka, Zambia), Fondation Tunisie pour le Développement (Tunis, Tunisia), hFACTOR (Lagos, Nigeria), DMF Impact Hub (Limbe, Cameroon), Karen Village (Nairobi, Kenya), 32° East (Kampala, Uganda), Culture and Development East Africa (Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania).
The question: “What does climate justice mean for Africans?” inspired the 2021 edition, with an urgent emphasis on amplifying traditionally underrepresented voices in inclusive climate action. Panels and features, from the earthy to the nerdy, included the Sound Atlas, a youth workshop and a hybrid residency titled “Hacking the Climate”, a Game Jam on Ecoexistence, music from high-concept rapper Yugen Blakrok among others, the Hivos-curated Kiunga Collective, mixed-media displays and poetry interludes.
Chemical death in Soweto’s mining neighbourhoods
Conscientious mother and lone-wolf environmental activist Tiny Dhlamini of Snake Park, Soweto, kicked it off with an impassioned demand for economic and ecological justice in South Africa. When Dhlamini moved to Snake Park from another part of Soweto, she queried the inordinate amount of dust that “tinted the skin, caused itching for adults and eczema in kids” and quickly confirmed house-to-house that the conditions were widespread. Mines near the township were abandoned by foreign companies without adequate health and safety procedures. They have since been overtaken by illegal miners, also known as zama zama.
Children have cerebral palsy, children who can’t talk, children who can’t feed themselves and some of them you cannot expose them outside because they can get a spasm
“Some children were deformed; others had (unnaturally) brown eyes,” Dhlamini said. “I decided to alert the media for this to stop but before that I went to the nearby mine and noticed there was no signpost; there was no fence, nothing. Children would go swimming; others would play soccer. It troubled me a lot because even adults were at the risk of falling into the sinkholes.”
“Children have cerebral palsy, children who can’t talk, children who can’t feed themselves and some of them you cannot expose them outside because they can get a spasm,” Dhlamini added.
She also recalled visiting rich neighbourhoods and noticing that they did not share any of these problems. “The problem is with us poor communities. The black poor were allocated Soweto. That’s where the wind blows. Even the run-off from the mines is designed to come straight to the poor.”
Zama zama have been in constant running battles with the South African police. Few days before African Crossroads, eight people died during clashes with the police while trying to bring food to colleagues whom police had detained in the holes.
“These are our resources. I fail to understand police brutality because there is no one stealing from another person here,” Dhlamini said. “They arrest someone over the weekend and release him Monday. There is no charge at all; they don’t even go to court. There is something sick about this thing being done by police.”
For the mother, the solution is not to chase and kill zama zama but to turn the abandoned mines into formal, properly managed small-scale mines serving the communities with jobs and income.
“Mines became a living thing because of the heavy metals that were used. This is a mess that was never fixed by government and the capitalists and now they are trying to shift the blame on zama zama. The air that is highly radioactive needs the scientist, the chemicals that are toxic, [and] security accidents: there are potential jobs in the area to clean our rivers and the sewer pipes that come straight into our rivers after they burst,” said Dhlamini.
What African leaders owe trees and wetlands
In a panel discussion on the inclusion of indigenous communities and African youths in the fight for climate justice, there was the critical question of harnessing indigenous knowledge for climate conservancy. Traditional beliefs were invested in ecological harmony but this panel and more showed that modern African leaders could not be further from their roots. “In Kenya, an MP said we should cut down trees because they make us feel cold at night,” host Memo Some pointed out.
Kenyan climate activist Wanjũhĩ Njoroge also on the panel, pointed out that when the Forest and Conservation Act of 2016 was passed in Kenya, the head of the committee was the same MP who had urged people to cut down trees for warmer nights. “You ask yourself how: Is this person going to pass policies that will protect the environment?”
“Register to vote and vote for people not because they are giving you a few shillings but because they will protect the environment, and put them to task,” Wanjuri said, adding that young people must also protect the vote, run for public office and not despise fellow youngsters who contest elections as they are usually more invested in the future than their older counterparts.
Zimbabwean trees do not have much of a standing chance either, particularly where they grow in the way of all-weather friends and economic benefactors. “It is self-defeating to sacrifice a lot of jobs to save twenty-three trees and few frogs,” then Zimbabwe Tourism Authority boss Karikoga Kaseke controversially said in 2013.
Cited in University of Zimbabwe historian Bernard Kusena’s African Crossroads presentation, “Prosperity vs. Ecology: Harare’s ‘Frog Hotel’ and the Wetlands,” Kaseke was weighing on the debate about whether the Chinese-owned Longcheng Plaza could be built on a wetland. It was. Kusena said leaders need to strike a balance between economic expansionism and ecological expansionism. Where the damage is done, compensation should be made to the environment and the community.
Pan-African Nerds Assemble
Africa Crossroads’ idea of “Ecoexistence” goes beyond saving Harare frogs and Nairobi trees and extends the unity of life from natural elements to data-generated avatars. This last life form kept Crossroads nerds busy throughout the year, designing ecologically wired games, software and multimedia.
Nairobi Design Week, which features collaborators from Kenya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Uganda and DRC, reported back on Lotus of the Nile, their climate-themed game exhibited at this year’s London Design Biennale. The group made good on the theme of the London event, “Resonance”, with a staggering multimedia work that draws convincingly on Pan-African traditions and sounds of the mighty river.
Imagine a snob game that features a futurist poem, a song, classical symbolism and environmental sounds. That’s what we are dealing with. In “The Poem: Learn from the Past”, strangers happen into an enchanted lotus, the shape of the Nile, that redirects them to the past and unites them. “The Song: Sampling the Nile”, draws on sounds such as the Masenqo from Ethiopia (played by HaddinQo), the sound of the Nile’s water from Egypt (provided by YouDesign Lab & Open Architecture Collaborative) and a song about the Blue Nile from Sudan.
The game is also available to bidders as a non-fungible token (NFT). As the blockchain comes of age, NFTs have emerged as its cultural storefront, with Generation Z, millennials, generous bidders and institutional investors giving a nod. If you are an African art snob, the Lotus of the Nile is a culture-rich primer to the NFT business.
During African Crossroads, the unveiling of the game was prefaced by a sea poem, written and performed by Ethiopian-Belgian creative Hiwot Schulte, also a sustainability advisor for the fashion and tech industry. Performed with intense minimalism, in simple but singular lines like: “What is your favourite flavour of plastic?” the poem lingers as a feeling.
At the end of the two-day conference, African Crossroads unveiled its climate justice manifesto in eight principles. The principles emerged through contributions from the network members’ over the year’s edition. Subsequently, participants at the gathering engaged in a voting exercise to refine this input. The manifesto is subject to revision as consultation goes on. These eight principles form the basis of finer action points further elaborated by Africa Crossroads:
- Develop individual assessments of our climate actions to better understand our own day-to-day responsibilities.
- Create the African Crossroads climate justice tools and community guidelines for our members and beyond.
- Invest in sustainable technologies for our creative processes, including festivals and events.
- Lobby for integrated financing towards climate justice from the local, regional and the international communities.
- Promote learning and knowledge-sharing on the dangers of climate change within our community of creatives and beyond.
- Initiate an African Crossroads certificate of good climate conduct as an incentive to our community members.
- Invest in strengthening data collection on energy, water and management and climate change as a best practice.
- Hold big business agencies and national governments to account, ensuring practice of existing regulations.
As a collective community, African Crossroads envisions a better future and take steps towards a shared vision that aims to “intentionally build synergies between individual creative practitioners, institutions, authorities, private business and communities that spread awareness, knowledge and practice of the changing relationship between humans, nature and technology”.
Kiunga Fire Album Launch
Things went down to a sonic wrap as African Crossroads gave listeners the first taste of its second album, Kiunga Fire. The exciting follow-up to last year’s benga-whelmed release was executive-produced by mwlm Gregg Tendwa, Bengatronics and Hivos Foundation, and produced and engineered by DJ Mura and Cheb Runner. Music director Udulele John worked with guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Michel Ongaro to recapture a rich African sound that has been making a swaggering comeback in recent times.
In one of the songs, “Kiralaga,” Sandra Suubi, who also features on the first album, performs a song on Uganda going green and fighting plastic pollution. Uganda has become the first landlocked country to sign the UNEP Clean Sea Pledge and committed to curb marine litter entering lakes and rivers.
African Crossroads 2021 was a culturally fulfilling experience and a rousing call to climate action. The original sin of the Anthropocene, treating nature from the position of human entitlement, extraction and acquisition, was put on blast. Ordinary people took charge, in-between geeks with Pan-African flags on their faces, academics, artists and able hosts Samantha Nengomasha who facilitated morning sessions and co-host Abbas Sbeity, moderating the evening sessions. Participation in “Ecoexistence” games and the sound archive is ongoing, open and accessible through the Africa Crossroads website.
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.
The hybrid event took place on the 14th and 15th October 2021 and featured live and recorded presentations on ECOEXISTENCE – a call for writing A COLLECTIVE MANIFESTO on how to restore a symbiotic relationship between humans and other-than-human entities (natural elements, animals, data-generated avatars and others). The programme was broadcasted online in the form of interviews, concerts, storytelling, panel discussions and digital experiences.