My participation in the African Youth Climate Justice Caravan from Nairobi to Durban between 6th November and 16th December 2011 for the 17th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC COP 17/CMP 7) Conference brought me to the realization, more than ever before of what the real effects of climate change are in the African continent. Apart from the prolonged droughts and famine in my country, Kenya, I was able to see for myself what people in other countries are experiencing and the measures they are taking to adapt to the effects. For instance; the rising temperatures in Tanzania, the massive deforestation in Malawi, the receding waters of the great River Zambezi and the magnificent Victoria Falls in Zambia, the increasing desertification and heat waves in Botswana and the changing weather patterns in South Africa. It is upon seeing these that I perfectly understood that the future of humanity and nature is at stake. I was convinced that, yes, we have to act now to save our common future. And I came back with an increased ability and drive to do something to create a better world.

I was impressed by the fact that young people, to whom the future belongs, have realized that they have the greatest responsibility in creating a sustainable future for this planet. It is motivating to note that the caravan was organized by young people. This to me is a show that we, the young people, have come of age to take up key roles on issues that matter most to us and our future. The caravan generated a lot of interest from all quarters of society; be it religious organizations, civil society groups, governments, non-governmental organizations, communities, the young people themselves and not to mention the local and international media that was constantly on our trails. This effectively served to send the message out to the world that the young people of Africa and indeed the world are closely watching and very eager for change-change in not only policies but most importantly change in actions especially by governments negotiating at the conference.

The caravan served in a great way to strengthen the youth climate movement in Africa and beyond. Although we are the least polluters, Africa suffers the greatest consequences of climate change. It was however comforting to know that other young people from developed and naturally polluting countries are in solidarity with the youth of Africa. Nearly every person contributes to climate change and everyone will suffer from its effects. We all share one atmosphere and our individual emissions have a global impact. With this unifying fact, young people are slowly but surely building a formidable global movement that will soon change the landscape of climate change issues in the world.

On the political front, through the various government representatives at the conference young people in the caravan were able to get the message across in one voice; that we need climate change response actions across all sectors of governance and the economy enshrined in policies that favor sustainable development and that national policies should be in tandem with local actions for there to be realized any meaningful results. Worth noting was the fact that the Government of Kenya has developed a National Climate Changer Response Strategy which maps out the country’s path towards a green economy. As young people we see this as a step in the right direction but that needs to be translated into specific and concrete actions that will help improve the people’s resilience towards the effects of climate change.

We also saw some good support from the Government of the United Republic of Tanzania; where the Vice President himself took time off to grace our climate justice concert in Dar es Salaam. He reiterated his government’s commitment not only towards a fair and legally binding agreement at the international climate negotiations but also to local actions that will benefit its people. In Zamia, the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources was present at the Lusaka Green Blaze Concert where she added her voice to the African position; that the polluters must pay. South Africa being the hosts did so much to save the face of Africa. All in all, our political leaders now know that we are keenly watching them; and we aren’t done yet!

One of the greatest moments for the African Youth Climate Justice Caravan was handing over of the more than two hundred thousand petitions collected by the “We Have Faith, Act Now for Climate Justice Campaign-with 142,331 coming from the caravan itself, to the UNFCCC Secretary General, Christina Figueres and the COP 17 President Hon. Maite Nkoana Mashabane at the massive Interfaith Rally held at the Kings Park Rugby Stadium in Durban. As if not enough, Mrs. Figueres took note of the caravan’s contribution to the fight for climate justice in her remarks at the opening session of the conference. The message had safely reached home. It was a sign that we had fought the good fight, and won the race. Mission accomplished!

Climate change requires an enormous shift in our thinking and behavior. While new technologies and ways of doing things on a macro scale are important, we need to change our lifestyles as a personal response to the changes. The opportunities to change are endless and the need to change is clear. This was one of the main messages the caravan passed across. As much as we want our governments to do something we also have a role to play. For a long time now we have just been talking about climate change. Time for talk is running out, it’s time for action. The human spirit needs a place where nature has not been re-arranged by the hands of mankind. We need to match our words with actions; for there can be no happiness if the things we believe in are different from the things we do. Let’s Act Now!

OPANY Nelson Ochieng, 24 years, UN-Habitat Cities and Climate Change Initiative, Mombasa

(The writer is also the Founder and Chairman of Uwezo Youth Development Project; and organization that works with young people around Environment and Climate Change, Peace Building, Development and Youth Empowerment)

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