Climate Change, Youth

Are African Voices Being Heard?

This is the first in a series of blog updates from the ongoing COP climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

Esther Agbarakwe

More than 400 young people from all over the world gathered at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) in South Africa this week for the 7th Conference of Youth.  The Conference of Youth (COY) is about bringing together youth from all over the world who are passionate about sustainability and climate change. It’s a place to connect, share skills and build a movement.

At about 7.30 am after a very fast  breakfast, I called a taxi to take me to UKZN’s Howard College, my backpack filled with PAI Materials for the Youth Expo. I arrived at UKZN at 8.30 am, due to heavy traffic. This having been my second time at COY, I felt I had a bit of  experience and was inspired to be attending the COY7 on African soil.

Arriving at the venue, my first question was: Where are the African youth delegates? I whispered this to my African youth delegate from Cameroun, because the room was already filled with young people from the global north (you could see the marked difference from the skin color alone).

I was worried, because our hope as African youth facilitators was that for the first time, African youth would have equal representation at the Conference of the Parties (COP), large climate negotiations that this year are being held in Durban.  Just then, the African Youth Justice Caravan arrived and the hall was now more than half filled with African delegates — mostly from the Southern African Countries (Kenya, South Africa, and Malawi, which had the largest delegation).

Youth in Durban enjoy a moment of fun

I was proud of this and felt a sort of entitled solidarity with the “African movement.” Even though the people running the COY sessions were mostly Australian or international, at least a lot of the delegates were local, I thought to myself. But what does locality mean in the face of a global movement? Who speaks, and who gets listened to? What capacity do they have to effectively engage with other youths on the relevant issues at the COP?  In a lot of senses, “Africa” (the continent is sadly still not being diversified by most youth, though it is 53 individual countries) is being represented in global talks and movements around the world, just as it is at COY. But does this mean that “African” voice gets listened to in the same way in which other organizations from the global north get listened to?

There are lots of African voices speaking out, but there is something very uncomfortable about the way in which we are ‘facilitated’ to speak by others, and the way in which they in turn listen to what we have to say. Of course, the global north, in their experience and monetary advantage, do have a lot to teach us and  can help us “build capacity.” This is especially true at political gatherings such as COP, which require a specific way of speaking to be taken even remotely seriously.  And that’s something we need. But it’s not all we need.

Making my tribute to the Late Professor Wangari Maathai at the opening plenary, I spoke of the need to empower young African women as Wangari believed and worked for with her Green Belt movement.  For me, seeing myself standing on the podium speaking and helping to facilitate the COY was just one example of this.

Soon after, I took my heavy backpack outside to get set for the exhibition. I got a table outside where a long line of youth were standing to get food, and many of them stopped to talk to me about my statement, and the importance of empowering women. Everything points to the fact that African youth and global youth at large are very interested to know and be engaged in the issue of sexuality and sustainability. The question we need to answer is: how do they make the connections, and what actions can they take?

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