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From South Africa to the White House, linking people to nature

Editor’s note: Nolu Kwayimani is on a mission to spread the word about the links between environmental, social and political issues — in her native South Africa and worldwide. To do so, she left her current home in rural Matatiele first for the Berkeley campus of the University of California, and then for the Presidential Summit at the White House — which included a meeting with President Obama.

As a Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders, Kwayimani was one of the 1,000 — out of 50,000 — applicants chosen to participate in the president’s flagship Young African Leaders Initiative program, which brings together bright minds from sub-Saharan Africa. We sat down with Kwayimani to discuss her ambitious plans for her fellowship once she returns to South Africa.

Question: For you, environmental, social and political issues in South Africa are inextricably linked. Can you explain?

Answer: From an environmental perspective, some of the issues that we have in South Africa right now are the obvious ones: drought, land degradation, symptoms of climate change. But there are also the social issues that link to the environmental issues, namely: We don’t have many women in the conservation sector. I can’t say why, exactly, but there haven’t been many women making decisions concerning the environment in the past, perhaps because many women have been occupied with other things like domestic work and traditional marital duties. It seems like science and technology have been seen as jobs for men for quite a long time in southern Africa. People have never taken science or conservation seriously as a career for women because we grew up being told that the better job for women is either nursing or teaching. It has been a new concept, and people are starting to advocate for broader options for women, understanding that in order for us to advocate for conservation we must be aware of the societal issues that seem to be more crucial to the people we meet, such as the state of their livelihoods.

When I was debating some issues with other Young African Leaders Initiative fellows coming from backgrounds in law, human rights and gender issues, I learned that they’ve never thought that conservation and climate change are crucial issues, because they are occupied with other pressing issues like poverty. Talking about environmental and social issues — even with this group of fellows — has involved a significant amount of enlightenment. There are issues like religion and tradition, that for some people seem to contradict the environmental movement — but through the fellowship, I’ve been finding time to actually debate about these issues with other Africans, discovering what they deal with in their own countries and how they resolve their own issues. This gives me a different perspective on how to integrate what they do in their spaces into my work with Conservation South Africa (CSA), a local affiliate of Conservation International.

Nolu traveling between CSA field visits. (© Conservation International/photo by Colleen Sorto)

Essentially, what’s come out of this fellowship is that we’re trying to enlighten each other about our different issues and programs such as the critical importance of conservation and the balance you need between nature and development because we are the ones going back to our 40 different countries to establish partnerships, mitigate climate change impacts, create strategies for renewable energy and waste management, fight gender-based violence, advocate for rights and change government policies. It is up to us to take what can work for us in our local context and apply it.

Q: How will your fellowship carry over to your work in South Africa, and what do you hope to accomplish?

A: Essentially, the fellowship has just started I was at the University of California, Berkeley for six weeks collaborating with other fellows, networking, studying; and then at a summit with President Obama about leadership. President Obama started the program to empower young Africans and give them the opportunity to hone their skills at a U.S. higher education institution, with continued support for professional development after they return home. At the summit, the president highlighted that it is time for Americans to learn more from African countries and how we do things. Now that I’m back in South Africa, my fellowship work really begins.

Nolu immediately after meeting President Obama with the other YALI fellows. (© Conservation International/photo by Colleen Sorto)

I’m dividing my work into two. I currently work for CSA on monitoring and evaluation for natural resource management projects. Something exciting that I’m working on with the Conservation International’s Policy Center for Environment and Peace is the “One Health” Initiative in South Africa’s Mzimvubu River catchment, which focuses on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) tactics to improve the health of ecosystems, livestock and people. We’re working in partnership with the Alfred Nzo District Municipality recently named one of the worst areas in South Africa to live due to lack of access to indoor plumbing, high unemployment rates and low income levels to implement freshwater ecosystem restoration, sanitation and community health projects.

As a complement to this work, I’ve started a project called “The Ladder” that focuses on introducing rural girls into the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It’s an incubation program that informs young girls in very rural areas about what they can do with STEM: providing them with necessary information, inspiring them and empowering them so they can develop their own communities without depleting natural resources.

Q: A lot of your work involves engaging directly with communities. Have you found the same resistance to environmental concern that you’ve experienced with some of the Young African Leaders Initiative fellows?

A: In Matatiele — a very rural area where there is no access to the internet, the land is degraded and the water is polluted — it’s difficult to get people to conserve their land and the surrounding environment without incentives. In South Africa, people are dealing with issues that are much more important to them, such as trying to bring food to their tables. They are slowly beginning to see opportunities within the environmental sector that will actually uplift them in terms of improving their livelihoods. This is something we’ve experienced through the One Health project: We have some volunteers that we’re working with, but when we go to the villages, the first thing people ask is, “How many jobs are there for this project?” And I find it difficult to actually say, “No one’s going to be paid, but we’re doing this for you, for the community, because you don’t have enough water right now.”

It’s essential when you’re discussing conservation issues that you don’t just talk about the problems, but that you bring up solutions. You can tell people, “Stop polluting this river. Stop throwing your dead animals there. Stop doing this.” But you also have to come up with recommendations for what they can do. If we’re telling people not to pollute the rivers, yet they don’t have landfill sites, or a good waste management strategy in place that the government is providing, or any infrastructure, then it hinders our project because we don’t have a solution to where people should throw their rubbish and their materials. These issues that communities are dealing with — jobs, infrastructure, political issues — they’re inseparable from the environment.

Sophie Bertazzo is a staff writer for CI.

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Cover image: The Udzungwa Waterfall in Tanzania provides a key source of water for crops. The Young African Leaders Initiative unites environmental activists like Nolu Kwayimani in the effort to protect places like this for nature and people. (© Benjamin Drummond)