The climate café is helping Africans who are worried about the environment find hope in the heat.

Mar 11, 2024 | News

Nigeria is at the forefront of climate change, but only three out of ten Nigerians are aware of it. Jennifer Uchendu, a youth activist, is determined to change this one conversation at a time.

Akindipe Akinjisola, A 29-year-old Nigerian banker, lives in Wawa, a suburb of Lagos.

He moved here in order to avoid the high rents of the city centre, which have increased by 91% on average over the last five years as a result of rapid urbanisation. Every year, during the rainy seasons, Akinjisola is forced to return to the city to seek refuge.

Wawa does not have a proper drainage system. When heavy rains fall, as they do between March and October, the neighbourhood floods force a large-scale evacuation. In recent years, the rains are getting heavier. 2022 saw some of the worst flooding in Nigeria’s history, with more than a hundred thousand Nigerians displaced and 800 deaths.

“In Wawa, people lose their homes and the houses they have built.” Akinjisola says, “Fear starts to come for me just because it’s rainy season.” He was speaking at the launch of the first climate café in the country, which took place in January. He heard about it on WhatsApp and, in search of a safe space to express his feelings, decided to visit the cafe.

Sustyvibes is an NGO founded in Nigeria by activist Jennifer Uchendu. Its mission is to make sustainability cool and relatable for Africans. The long tables are decorated with pots of flowers, ready for the grand opening of the climate café, which is part of the new initiative, Eco-Anxiety Africa Project. Ayomide, the project manager, welcomes everyone to the space with a wide smile. It is good to know that I am not alone in feeling these emotions, and there are other people who feel the same way as I do,” she says.

The climate cafes are a small number of those that exist across the continent. The first were in east Africa, in Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. More have recently appeared in Nigeria’s west African neighbor Benin. In Nigeria, where the discussion of eco-anxiety and climate crisis is rarer, TEAP’s cafe fills the void at the intersection of mental health and climate in Africa.

Ayomide Alude, project manager, Eco Anxiety Project in Lagos. Image: Taiwo aina

According to Afrobarometer’s survey of 2022, only three out of ten Nigerians knew about the climate crisis. However, most Nigerians are aware that the weather has become more severe, to the point where it is sometimes uninhabitable.

In Nigeria, the climate crisis can be seen through a prism of class, just as it is in the northern hemisphere where environmentalists warn that eco-anxiety disproportionately affects white people. It is seen as an indulgence only for the upper and middle classes. Poorer citizens are more concerned.

Nigeria has been suffering from rising inflation for years. The current rate is 28.92%. The price of staple food products has increased. In the year up to November 2023 for example, a bag or rice cost 73.2 %.

It’s the impact of someone being inspired to change that drives me.

“A Nigerian poor man will not tell you that he is worried about climate change. He will tell you that he is worried about the rising prices of food on the market and lack of electricity,” says Seyifunmi Adebote, an environmental expert from Nigeria and host of Climate Talk Podcast.

But Uchendu and team do not let this deter them.

“But when you look at the impacts of climate change, the people it affects most intensely are poor people.” “But when you examine the impacts of climate changes, the people most affected are the poor .”

The first climate café in Nigeria was launched with attendees finding strength in their solidarity. Image: Taiwo aina

She has identified that the local languages of Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa do not have words to describe climate change.

“When people talk about climate changes, it can appear a bit elite as we speak in English instead of local languages,” she says. It’s easy to think it doesn’t affect the average person because of this. Our work is to help you with that. .”

Uchendu has become one of Nigeria’s leading voices on climate change. She has worked with the Nigerian Government to implement a national recycling law, spoken at Cop28, and been named an Ashoka Fellow. She now lives in the Netherlands while she pursues a research fellowship at the University of Utrecht on eco-anxiety. Her journey began when she was a child with asthma caused by air pollution. Her struggle to breathe made her more aware of the environment around her.

It’s good to know that I’m not the only person feeling these emotions. There are others who also feel the same way.

She earned a master’s in climate change, policy and development at the Institute of Development Studies (UK). She describes it as a “lightbulb moment” when she realized that her experience with eco-anxiety differed from those of her English peers. In the UK it was usually expressed as guilt. She felt anger over the injustice of Africans suffering the worst effects of a climate catastrophe that they have played a relatively small part in causing.

Eco-anxiety is a relatively new concept in Africa. The conversation focuses mainly on the failure of governments to build critical infrastructures that would mitigate climate change.

Uchendu says: “For ourselves, our planet and the world at large.” She says: “For us, our planet, and the entire world .”

Jennifer Uchendu is a youth activist and the founder of Sustyvibes. Image: Sustyvibes

The conversation continues in the late afternoon sunlight at the cafe. Hope Lekwa, the head of research for Sustyvibes, explains that Nigerians are not yet aware of the connection between their mental health and their changing climate. Lekwa explains that the project aims to “bring these emotions to the front and have discussions about,” because most Africans are used to shutting their emotions “.

Research supports this approach, which acknowledges that people in Nigeria may not express their anxiety in such terms but that it doesn’t mean that they don’t feel it. In a Lancet survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25, from 10 countries, including India, Nigeria, and Brazil, more than 45% reported that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives, such as eating, sleeping, and studying.

Sustyvibes is involved in a wide range of activities across Nigerian society. From its Sustyschools program, which is a climate outreach project aimed at secondary schools, through to Susty on the Streets – a street clean-up and kerbside advocacy initiative. It also hosts training sessions aimed at African mental health professionals exploring the link between climate crisis and mental well-being.

Hope Lekwa is the head of research and communication at Sustyvibes. Image: Taiwo aina

The partnership between the University of Nottingham and the Centre for Climate Change Research examines the impact of climate change on the mental health of residents of west African cities such as Banjul, Freetown Monrovia Accra and Lagos. It has been revealed that young Africans have a keen awareness of the impact of climate change on their lives.

Uchendu said, “The more young people that we can engage in this conversation, we will be able to push this movement further forward.” “That’s really what drives me – when someone is inspired to make a change in their neighbourhood. I want to light many candle so that we have literally a constellation of stars across the African continent – young people running campaigns and changing the way we think about sustainable development in Africa .”

The opening of the café in Nigeria is a positive step for those who work in the climate sector.

“We have a saying here: a problem shared is half solved.” “We have a saying: a problem that is shared is half-solved .”

Sola Alamutuaka (AKA Mama Green) is one of the Eco Anxiety Project climate elders. Image: Taiwo aina

He is sceptical that Nigeria will become a nation of climate justice activists. “These climate cafés are working well in other parts around the world, and we want to replicate that here,” he says. “But I’d say that for it to be truly effective, the climate cafes have to go beyond that .”

Ihuoma Okechukwu is back in Lagos, talking to other cafe patrons about the seasonal changes that she has seen. “I don’t think it’s just the weather that makes me sadder, but I’m always scared when the seasons change,” she says.

Okechukwu admits that she has a reputation of nagging her fellow students for disposing of waste down drainage pipes and blocking and flooding the area. This creates a breeding ground where malaria mosquitoes can thrive. She says that this is one thing she can control, even though fixing the climate may be out of her reach.

The climate cafe has inspired me to be a force for change and to speak out no matter what others think.

Sola Alamutu is a climate elder at the cafe, also known as Mama Green. She has some wise advice. The TEAP project is based on intergenerational dialogue, which matches those experiencing eco-distress to a seasoned mentor with their experience and wisdom.

“Talking helps,” Alamutu says. He runs a green music, dance and drama festival that promotes environmental issues. “When you are part of a community, you feel less anxious. Climate change affects everyone and everything. This is a space where we can talk about the emotions .”

After three hours of heartfelt conversations, the cafe closes for the day. Akinjisola is now more vocal about climate change issues. The cafe helped him realise that his anxiety was not being alleviated by his silence.

“It’s challenged me to be a driver for change,” he said. “And to speak out no matter what the people think .”

Main image: Akindipe Akinjisola is a banker from Lagos who feels anxious about flooding every rainy season. Credit: Taiwo Aina

 

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