IIt was a unique opportunity for the young woman to make her point. As she walked to the podium, Elizabeth Wahuti, Kenya‘s up-and-coming environmentalist, could see President Joe Biden in the audience. She says it really was her moment to impress global leaders charged with paying for sins against a warming planet.
Speaking at the UN Climate Change Conference (Cop26) in Glasgow last November, Wahuti listed the struggles low-income countries are facing to feed their populations due to the climate crisis. “As we sit comfortably here, more than 2 million of my compatriots in Kenya are at risk of climate-related starvation. Last year both of our rainy seasons failed and scientists say it may be another 12 months before the waters return. Meanwhile, our rivers are drying up, our crops are failing,” she said. “Our warehouses are empty. Our animals and people are dying.”
Her speech caught the attention of the US President. “I saw Biden’s security team try to signal the president it was time to go, but he waved him off. He wanted to listen. Maybe I had something he really needed to hear,” she says.
Ever since that “Glasgow moment” the Wahuti diary has been packed. When the 27-year-old isn’t speaking at an environmental forum somewhere in the world, she’s engaging young people in discussions about conservation or speaking with other activists, including Greta Thunberg and the Dalai Lama.
I finally met Wahuti in a hotel in Nairobi in early May. She was exhausted after a day of meetings and hadn’t had time to eat. Meetings, she says, drain her physically and emotionally. “Even this interview is going to drain me,” she adds, but shrugs that we’re meeting up a week later instead.
“You won’t find me,” she says with a smile. “I’ll be gone for months.” She had been invited to the Rwanda Sustainable Energy Forum. From there she went to Switzerland to take part in a panel discussion at the World Economic Forum and to share the platform with US Climate Ambassador John Kerry. Sweden was her next stop for the Stockholm +50 meeting; She would then travel to Germany for a climate conference, then to the UK for the Glastonbury Festival. Before “these few commitments”, Nairobi was the best chance.
In Nairobi, the environmental scientist moderated a seminar on tracking donations to Africa for climate finance. “How do local communities know how to access such funds? What are they supposed to do with the money? It is one thing to ask rich nations for funds and another to give an account of what they have received. We need a mechanism to track such funds and the impact of the money on local communities,” she says. “Some communities never know when such money was sent to developing countries. We have poor mechanisms to hold those responsible accountable.”
Wahuti began her activism in elementary school on the slopes of Mount Kenya. Her home was not far from that of the late Wangari Maathai. Wahuti grew up admiring the Nobel laureate’s work through her Green Belt movement. “My dream was to meet Wangari Maathai, but I never did. She died when I was at school. I wanted to understand where she got her strength and determination to fight for the environment. I read her book Unbowed seven times when I realized I would never meet her. The book spoke to me,” she says.
Maathai inspired Wahuti, who began planting trees in her neighborhood and at the local school. She says she wasn’t aware of how big the climate crisis was or that her seedlings might not survive. Her village in once fertile central Kenya was becoming drier and there was less food. Granaries, once common features in courtyards, no longer existed.
“My grandmother didn’t have any devices to measure the weather, but the rain came on time. She could predict what her harvest would be. Today, she predicts, there will be no rains, followed by prolonged droughts. I remember playing in the granary full of corn crops, but such structures were demolished. There’s not enough food and storage,” she says.
In 2016, Wathuti became the fourth recipient of the Wangari Maathai Scholarship Award and founded the Green Generation Initiative to focus on the ecological crisis in her community. The group has grown into mentoring climate conscious children, planting food trees in schools and conducting environmental education. She is the director of campaigns at the Wangari Maathai Foundation and, according to Maathai’s daughter Wanjira, is a “reflection of my mother”. , who chairs the Board of Trustees.
Wathuti rejects the criticism that her work and that of other young activists would hardly make a dent in the rigid global bureaucracy. Echoing Maathai’s words, she says she will be like the hummingbird, putting out a forest fire with small drops of water, while larger animals like elephants, which could carry much more water in their trunks, just look on.
“Politicians are more than hummingbirds. The forest is burning and they have bigger trunks,” she says. “Mere commitments and empty promises are not enough.”
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