Young African climate activists demand real change at COP27

As a young climate change activist in Kenya, Eric Njuguna thinks it would be a bad idea for his African peers to replicate the campaigning methods used by their counterparts in the West.

For example, the 21-year-old said the Fridays for Future school strike movement, started by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg in 2018, would be inadvisable across Africa – pointing to low rates of enrolment in education and limits on freedom of expression.

“(Fridays for Future) has inherently Eurocentric dynamics,” Nairobi-based Njuguna said, adding that skipping school “is not a privilege that many can afford” on the African continent.

“I would advise you (Africans) to start your own thing,” Njuguna said. “Many of us come from countries with authoritarian governments. The moment you organise civil disobedience as extreme as they do in Europe, the consequences can be severe.”

He is one of a rising number of young climate activists in Africa, striving to not only raise public awareness and hold governments to account but challenge narratives that downplay or omit campaigners and affected communities from the Global South.

“They are impatient to see world leaders taking action, and they will not wait,” said Joan Nyanyuki, executive director of the African Child Policy Forum (ACPF), a pan-African NGO.

“Their young voices calling attention to the threats to their childhood and their future must not be ignored, their stories must be heard and retold,” she added.

Njuguna said his activism started in 2017, when he was still in secondary school, in response to a severe drought that led to water rationing with an acute impact on youngsters and children.

“So, I became a climate activist out of necessity as opposed to just wanting to create change,” said Njuguna, who has since organised campaigns on matters such as wealthy nations including the United States exporting their waste to African countries.

“The people who are most affected by the climate crisis are usually disconnected from the policies that do affect them at the grassroots level,” he added.

Njuguna spoke before attending the UN COP27 climate talks in Egypt, where he and other activists such as Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate are raising issues like “loss and damage” and calling for funding to help climate-hit African nations handle rising costs.

At a panel at COP27, Njuguna said the summit – which has been dubbed “the African COP” – must be “more than just a location change” in order to deliver climate justice for Africa.

“We need to go beyond talk and realise what climate justice means for African communities,” he said on Wednesday. “That is why we need to listen to African children and young people who are disproportionately bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.”

Taking responsibility

Leah Namugerwa, an 18-year-old Ugandan activist, said she has been arrested three times by police since 2019 for participating in peaceful marches on environmental issues – such as trying to save the Bugoma forest from development.

“The government seems to give us (young climate activists) a negative response,” said Namugerwa – who is known for her efforts to plant trees and ban plastic bags.

She said she was aware when she started campaigning in 2019 that there could be dangers to organising protests in her country, where rights advocates decry a tightly-controlled system overseen by President Yoweri Museveni since 1986.

Namugerwa decided to become a climate campaigner at 14 after hearing about the devastating effects of a landslide in Uganda on the news. She was inspired to join the Fridays for Future movement Friday after learning about Thunberg and her campaign.

The activist said she was still frustrated by a failed legal battle against the Uganda government to prevent approval for part of Bugoma forest to be cleared for a sugarcane plantation.

“My country doesn’t have an environmental court so we had no backup. I’m planning to become an environmental lawyer,” Namugerwa said by phone from her boarding school in Kampala.

At COP27, Namugerwa gave an address in which she said the world “must face some real truths” to achieve proper results.

“Africa contributes less than 4% of carbon emissions, but we suffer the most,” she said at the start of the summit. “The future is at stake, mostly (for) young children. We’re not sure whether we’re heard when we speak, or if we’re just ignored.”

In September, Namugerwa and Njuguna – along with Benin’s 15-year-old Guileda Shafeekath Ashanti – were praised by Mozambican politician and humanitarian Graça Machel as she gave an address at an ACPF conference on climate change and child rights.

“These three are taking responsibility,” Machel – the widow of Nelson Mandela – said at the event in Ethiopia after inviting them on stage. “They are leading, they are driving, they have the vision of where this continent of ours should be going.”

Challenging Western narratives

In Nigeria, Lekwa Hope Anya’s version of climate activism is more behind the scenes and mostly done sat at a computer screen.

Having been inspired to pursue climate justice in 2017 by a university course on global development, the 22-year-old now works for SUSTYVIBES, a youth-led group that develops sustainability projects in communities across Nigeria.

“There’s so much work to be done in climate change communication,” said Anya, a researcher who leads a team aiming to simplify and incorporate fun in communication around the issue – be it through Instagram Live sessions or podcasts.

For example, he said he had recently been explaining to Twitter users how the impacts of climate change – from a lack of water to land – were fuelling insecurity in northern Nigeria.

Anya is also part of the Loss and Damage Coalition, a group of 530 youths from more than 40 countries, which demands action in addressing the loss and damage caused by climate change.

Climate negotiators agreed on Sunday at COP27 to start discussions on a “loss and damage” funding plan to help poorer countries recover from losses.

“While money is going to adaptation, what is often neglected is loss and damage, particularly most Global South regions have a peculiar case because it is often overlooked,” Anya said.

Regarding the summit itself, Anya said “it’s not enough for us to have a meeting on climate change once every year”.

“It’s something we should take seriously all year,” he said.

Ahead of COP27, Kenya’s Njuguna said he believed that Africa is suffering two different types of climate injustice.

The continent is being disproportionately impacted by the polluting activities – and climate inaction – of countries in the West, while the stories of environmental activists in Africa are being centred around white narratives, Njuguna said.

“We need the stories of people in the Global South who are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, those on the frontlines, because their stories represent the reality of what the climate crisis really is,” he said.

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