A Climate Conversation In Africa, Without Africans
Illustration by Pope Phoenix

A Climate Conversation In Africa, Without Africans

The continent contributes less than 5% of global emissions but bears the brunt of the devastation of climate change. We spoke with African climate activists on their struggle to be heard.

It’s 8 p.m. in drought-stricken Kenya as meteorologist and climate change activist Mana Omar and I attempt to conduct a Google Meet interview while she visits her childhood home in Kajiado County. The frustration in Omar’s voice carries over the unstable network connection as she reminisces on the drastic changes in her environment she’s witnessed firsthand. “They call me a living book," she tells OkayAfrica. “I’ve been here since birth and I’ve seen streams disappear. I’ve seen forests dry out into nothing. There have been a lot of changes—a lot of heartbreaking changes. The rains have become unpredictable, and the frequency of the drought is more prolonged every year. As a meteorologist, I understand.”

Every year, the United Nations hosts the “Conference of the Parties” (COP) where they invite nearly every country in the world to take part in their global climate summits. This year is the 27th rendition and Cop27 is being hosted in Egypt, from Nov 6 to the 18th. Leading up to the conference, multiple climate activists from Africa have expressed their concern and disappointment over being sidelined and not given due consideration when organizations gauge who to support and represent at the conference. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Africa contributes less than 5% of the planet’s global emissions but, “stands out disproportionately as the most vulnerable region in the world.”

And yet African activists are being willfully left out. “COP27 is very, very important to us," Nigerian climate activist Goodness Dickson said.

Over the last two decades, Africa has been ravaged by natural disasters. Drought, floods, famine, and harsh high temperatures have taken residence and devastated communities in every corner of the continent. In 2019, The Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters (CRED) released a 20-year review titled “Disasters In Africa” which illustrated the grim data. According to the report, “Since 2000, Kenya (60 events), Mozambique (55 events), and South Africa (54 events) experienced the highest number of disasters as they regularly face storms, droughts, and flooding. The three most populated subSaharan countries, Nigeria (49 events), Ethiopia (43 events), and D.R. Congo (41 events), also fall into the top 10.” Somalia has recorded the highest number of deaths as a result of the 2010 drought-related famine that saw more than a quarter million people starve to death.

If we weren’t consciously aware of what, how, and why climate change progresses the way it does, one would deduce that Africa is just grossly unlucky. Instead, activists are trying to bring attention to the fact that the lack of awareness, education, and intentional inaction from all sides are to blame.

“I come from a country that basically has two seasons: the dry season and the wet season. And that’s favorable because farming and agriculture are the backbones of the country,” Ugandan climate and gender issues activist Aidah Nakku said. “But, lately, we’ve seen unpredictable weather changing patterns with prolonged dry seasons and prolonged wet seasons. So, it has made survival hard for people. These are farmers who plant and eat what they plant–there also used to be opportunities to sell commercially.”

The famine and prolonged droughts in the Northern regions like Karamoja, and floods in the East and Western regions of the country have made it difficult for Ugandans to feed themselves, let alone their communities.

October 2022 saw 33 out of Nigeria’s 36 states flooded. A staggering 603 people died and over 1.3 million people were displaced. Abuja native Goodness Dickson’s journey to climate activism began in 2019 as the year’s 47℃ (117℉) high summer caused many to panic over the rising temperatures. And now, changing rain patterns and an environment that conjures feelings of woe have sparked his desire to take further action.

“I know the rain pattern,” Dickson said, “Actually, it has changed from how it used to be, to a different pattern. And it’s affected everything. The sea level is rising and not able to take in or observe as much rainwater. So, the country floods. People die. The floods take people’s homes, drown their properties, and their farmlands. It takes away so much. We really are in a crisis.”

In recent years, the intersectionality of the planet becoming progressively less habitable and the ways in which that affects society and its rules have been highlighted. Social and cultural issues are only intensified in a sinking ship.

Nakku’s stories of Gender-based violence in Uganda echo Omar’s understanding of Kenyan society and the roles that gender plays in the scramble for survival. “Sometimes, when women and children have to walk long distances to fetch water or get feed for their animals, they’re raped,” Omar said. “I’ve seen so many cases like this.”

Omar has witnessed family structures struggling too, as families are forced to separate when male members migrate and leave their homes to seek better – or worse. “[The changing environment] is influencing parents to give their children and grandchildren away in marriage at very young ages because of poverty,” Omar said.“They just want to get some livestock in exchange.”

According to Omar, the lack of education, money, and resources given to indigenous African communities has kept them in the dark about why the planet they’ve spent generations living off of is suddenly turning on them. “At first, I thought we need to have these people accessing weather-focused technology so that they could avoid the losses that are incurred as a result of droughts. But, then, I saw it not working again because I didn't have the capacity to bring the focus here and explain or translate it into the local language or even reach a wider audience.

“My community doesn’t even know”, she continues. “They don’t know about climate change. They’re naive to the fact that they contribute, even very minimally, to the emissions, but also don’t know that they’re most affected. These communities live in close harmony with wildlife. We’ve been preserving wildlife for ages, but we’re the ones bearing the brunt. To me, it’s an injustice. And I’d like to see this community being given the reparations they deserve. Or even the attention.”

Social media can be a powerful tool for finding people who want the same thing as you. Nakku speaks of how her interactions online led to her realizing that pursuing climate activism is possible and that there are many others around her with the same objective. An introduction to fellow Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate and her Rise Up Climate Movement by a friend solidified Nakku’s desire to fight.

Omar’s experience connecting with others has brought her the level of optimism needed to actually see changes happen. “My community of activists is extremely supportive,” she said. “I really consider them as my own family because we share the same struggles, we can relate to each other's difficulties and challenges. When we meet in such places or conferences, it feels like we are together in this. And the unity and strength recharge you and your courage to continue fighting.”

The activists had set their sights on Cop27 being the perfect platform to demonstrate the power behind their fight. Dickson, who is attending Cop27, said the lack of access to important conversations and negotiation rooms does nothing but spotlight how important it is for the most affected areas to be there. According to Dickson, activists who obtained badges through their respective governments or the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) have been given “party badges” that grant them access to high-level meetings. Those attending with the help of local NGOs are appointed “observer badges".

“We’re limited to just the pavilions,” he said. “The conference has been fine, but we’re having issues accessing some of the venues and negotiation rooms. Our badges are quite different, you see.”