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  1. The Environment Interview
24 November 2021updated 25 Nov 2021 5:49pm

“A crisis of feeling”: Kenya’s Elizabeth Wathuti on keeping faith on climate’s front line

As drought ravages the horn of Africa, youth climate activists are calling for global solidarity and support for local action.

By India Bourke

Three weeks ago, 26-year-old Elizabeth Wathuti took to the stage at the largest climate conference in history. At her side was the bold red of the British host nation’s Union Jack; behind her, a screen was blocked out in UN blue; and on her jacket and beaded bracelet were emblazoned the red, black and green stripes of the Kenyan flag. The combined weight of these colours and symbols spoke to the immensity of the global negotiation ahead – but it was to each individual’s conscience that Wathuti made her address.

“I have asked myself, over and over, what words might move you,” the Kenyan activist told delegates, her eyes searching the room to meet those of each assembled. “And then I realised that making my four minutes count does not rest solely on me: my truth will only land if you have the grace to fully listen; my story will only move you if you can open up your hearts.”

Her plea for compassion for the climate vulnerable went viral on social media around the world. And, for a short while at least, it seemed as though world leaders at Cop26 might be responding with real ambition. Pledge followed pledge during the early stages of the talks, but the final agreement disappointed many. In the wording of the Glasgow deal, it was agreed that coal use is to be “phased down”, not “out”. Likewise, discussions around the provision of “loss and damage” to pay worst-hit nations for the damage caused by extreme weather once again failed to advance significantly.

On returning home to Kenya’s capital Nairobi, Wathuti told me she has been left “grieving the outcome” of the summit. Countries that have the least historical responsibility for the climate crisis are “suffering most” from its effects – and it is hard, in the rounds of national interviews she is giving, to tell her fellow Kenyans that the required action will ever come.

“When I was sharing, perhaps [world leaders’] hearts did open at that moment. But whether or not they kept their hearts open after that is still a big question – and I think they did not, because I did expect more from the Cop. I cannot pick any outcome that I can give as an answer to my people facing the crisis.”

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The need for support for those on the front lines of climate change is only growing. During the summit, stories were breaking about Kenya’s escalating and prolonged drought. The UN expects 2.4 million Kenyans to struggle to find food from November, up from 1.4 million in February, while more than 465,00 children and almost 100,00 pregnant and breastfeeding women in northern Kenya are acutely malnourished. “We have to come back home without answers to questions of where they will get food? Where will they get water?” Wathuti said.

What next for activists? Debate has raged online over to whom climate movements in developed nations should pitch their message. Some, such as the British commentator George Monbiot, argue that upholding a message of global climate justice is at odds with reaching out “across the political spectrum”. He suggests those with a “conservative mindset” have too much vested interest in preserving the power of wealthy people and nations to support loss and damage compensation. Others stress the need to build a broad movement that wins people over “one conversation at a time”.

For Wathuti, the key is to “keep up” the momentum and pressure on leaders through a variety of means and “amplify the voices of those who are most impacted”.

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“We need to make decisions out of an understanding of the pain of others. This is a message that I will keep making. To get people to open their hearts, we have to keep teaching ourselves how to feel. We are also in a crisis of listening and feeling. [But] if we can learn how to listen and how to feel, we can move several steps ahead.”

Wathuti’s compassion for the planet began in her early years. Growing up in Nyeri, the most forested region in Kenya, she felt connected to the “trees and bushes and clean streams and rivers flowing near my homestead”. Then, at age seven, thanks to a scheme set up by her local MP, Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, she planted her first tree. “I became part of nature and it became part of me,” Wathuti said.

An experience of “ecological grief” soon deepened this connection further. When Wathuti returned as a high-schooler to the forest she’d helped sow, she found it a sea of logs and stumps: with no official protection and not enough local awareness, the habitat was being destroyed. 

The resulting “anger” became a prompt to action. She told her grandmother she wanted to become an environmentalist (over the favoured careers of medicine or teaching) – and her grandmother said she’d have to study hard, not least since Maathai herself had also been the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

At high school, Wathuti began an environment and weather club, and at university, she founded her own Green Generation Initiative. The NGO runs tree-planting schemes in Kenyan schools with the aim of providing fruit to children who struggle to access enough food, and spreading environmental awareness.

Today, Wathuti is a UN Young Champion of the Earth and the head of campaigns at the non-profit Wangari Maathai foundation, where she runs the Daima coalition for the protection of urban green spaces. Helping her fellow Kenyans to understand the connections between climate change, poverty, education and employment is the “priority”, she explained. “It’s about leaving no one behind: taking awareness to communities which maybe didn’t even know Cop26 was happening. It’s all tied to local action and local awareness and not remaining silent when there’s a problem.”

Much more support is needed to scale-up grassroots initiatives and climate solutions, Wathuti said. And the distribution mechanisms for international funding need particular attention, with not enough support yet being channelled to the “right projects at the right levels”. 

But there is hope that, on an individual-to-individual level, at least, the message is getting through. “I was really moved by the people-power I saw outside of the Cop, people hungry for change. It kept me thinking that the real change is going to come from these people, [who are now] back in their communities trying to work on the real solutions.” 

Especially in places blessed with the “privilege” of freedom to protest, people must demand their leaders do more, Wathuti said. “We can’t afford to give up the fight. The leaders are waking up; they are recognising and acknowledging. [We should] keep up the pressure so that they move beyond acknowledging and do what must be done.”

[See also: Why we need Greta Thunberg more than ever]