Today, we’re speaking with Nyombi Morris. Could you tell us a bit about your background?
Yes. My name is Nyombi Morris. I’m a twenty-three-year-old climate justice activist from Uganda. I joined the climate change movement after witnessing the effects of tropical cyclone Idal, which had heightened impacts due to climate change, as well as other general weather changes, in the form of floods and landslides that took place, especially in 2018. Before becoming involved, I used to see activists from different countries, but I didn’t know much about it. I was following what was happening, though. In 2019, I was watching television, and I saw a girl – Vanessa Nakate – on the street outside our parliament building, striking for climate justice.
I’d heard a bit about her work, but I had to search for her online. I got in touch with her to learn more. So she talked to me about climate change, and in October 2019, I joined her climate movement. However, my background in climate change wasn’t strong, because before then, we had been living in a district in Uganda known as Masaka. It is near a wetland called Lwera. We used to get heavy rains, due to the companies that were doing sand mining – especially the Chinese, they used to come and mine sand in that wetland. This led to environmental degradation. After that, the wetland couldn’t drain anymore, and the water would come up into our houses, and most of the time, our crops were washed away by the floods. As time went on, my parents were forced to shift, because they couldn’t sustain a living. At the same time, they lost their investment in farming, because that living was no longer an option for us.
So when we moved to Kampala, we started living here with my grandmother, who agreed to host us for some time. In that process, at some point, my dad disappeared. He used to go and come back with some stuff, some food and other things, in the evenings, but one day, he went and never came back. So I struggled with studying. In 2016, when I finalized my 4 level (equivalent to US junior year of high school), my mom needed me to go, so she could support my siblings – there are three of them. So I began looking for jobs. But in 2016, luckily enough, I got a scholarship in a second university here. For two years, I worked on my course in IT and tech science. But when it came time to graduate, I couldn’t complete the degree because I couldn’t afford the completion fee. So I left with just a transcript. Today, I still have hope that one day, I will go back to school. But I don’t know when that day will be.
Last year, in 2020, I went to see my dad. He’s now with a different lady, and they have some kids. Until then, I thought maybe he had died, because he never called or reached out to us at all. In October 2020, just by coincidence, I was in town and ran into him. I was so shocked.
So life wasn’t easy. But when I saw Vanessa Nakate striking, I knew right away that I had to rise up, to stand up for the people, and for the voiceless. However much I was struggling myself, with what happened to my parents and their separation, I had to help. My family is connected personally to climate change, because before then, my parents struggled to get enough food for us, even as farmers, and they made no money. Many nights, we couldn’t even sleep, because whenever it would rain, the house would leak. We had regular flooding in our house, and we were forced to carry our bags and stay somewhere away from there the whole night. It started from there, but it’s stayed a part of my life. I still see others suffering in that way, and that’s why it stays with me, and I want to help. I want to be a voice for those people who can’t speak, to represent them.
So your parents were farmers while you were growing up?
Yes, they were farmers. I used to see them farming, and I used to help in the garden.
Do you remember a time when there wasn’t flooding where you lived then?
Yes, before 2010. Because we left there after that. Everything was destroyed, so the only option was to sell the farm. All the people who lived next to that wetland lost their homes and farms. There were many people there. Some went to camps, and others, who had family in town, like us, moved in with family. We were forced to shift to Kampala. And there are some people who remained, whose houses were not destroyed.
You experienced the place where you grew up, the place you knew as home, becoming uninhabitable. Do you have any memories of that place before it was destroyed, any of the natural areas, for example?
Yes, the land was fertile, and we were able to grow different crops. There were even trees. I had my own small garden when I was young. Nature in that area then was okay. Everyone was growing things, and our crops were always good quality. And we had a nice house, with room for everyone.
It was home, and we would have stayed, but we had no way to make money after we could no longer grow crops. We had to leave to find work elsewhere.
So meeting Vanessa was a turning point for you?
Yeah. It was in 2018. By then, we had a flat screen in our house. It was the first time we’d ever had a television. So I used to mainly watch the news. And then I saw her on the news. I was so surprised, because I didn’t know we had any activists in Uganda. I thought that climate activists were only in other countries, not in Uganda. So I had to approach her, to know more. I went to where she did her protesting and approached her. Luckily enough, she was so friendly and welcoming, and she talked to me, and told me all about what she was doing. In time, we started attending the same events. Protests and clean-ups, for example. She showed me her social media, and that’s when I joined for the first time. But Vanessa was so inspiring and hard-working that she made me believe that we could get what we deserved if we worked for it.
You take part in School Strike for Climate and Fridays for Future. Did Vanessa help you find those groups?
Yes. But those are only on certain days, and I wanted to do more. So I decided to start up a tree planting project in 2020, after discovering a tar mine here. I thought that the tree planting could be different here than it is in Europe or the Global North, because here, when people plant trees, they plant them as a kind of retirement benefit. Here, after many years, the trees people plant are used as a source of income. When people are old enough to retire, they cut down the trees they planted and sell them, using the money for living costs. But they are clearing forests, because someone may have planted thirty-five acres of land with trees, and now they want to sell them out, because they need retirement money.
When I discovered that, I started a tree-planting project to teach children, and mobilize schools and communities the importance of trees, that if they are allowed to keep growing, they will be producing other important things for us. For example, some trees are an important source of medicine. Some have been used to treat Coronavirus. Here in Uganda, we haven’t lost that many people to Coronavirus, even though the vaccine only recently arrived here. But trees are valuable for other reasons, as well. They produce fruits and nuts. If you plant your land with those trees, they will keep providing money for you every year. If you sell a tree here, you will get something like $25 or $30. Whereas, with fruit trees, you can get this every year. So I had to change their mindset, so they could see the value of keeping trees in the ground. Because, in the end, we need them.
Now, I regularly go to schools, and I offer them trees, mostly for the kids. In bigger communities, we also do some plantings. Just yesterday, we went to an old umbanga forest, and brought some people along to do some restoration. We planted over 2500 trees yesterday. We collected them and transplanted them there, to help the forest recover. Because while we are fighting for renewables, we need to keep what we already have. We need to make sure the existing forests survive before we look to new solutions. We must first protect what we already have.
So for me, my own mind was changed, and I began to focus more and more on tree planting solutions and changing the mindset of my people, the people who are here. Apart from that, we organize strikes, like one coming this Friday, and we focus on other ways of bringing awareness to the climate crisis in Uganda and Africa.
Are the people where you live now planting fruit trees?
Yes! More than twenty of them here where I live. Some of them cry about not having seedlings, so part of my job is to bring them what they want, or what they need. I provide them seedlings, and they plant them. And it isn’t just tree planting. These people will join us and do some clean-ups, and pick up things in our community. Compared to before, we can see a difference here now.
Do you think that sort of hands-on, local activism is the most effective? Seeing people you’ve educated getting involved?
Actually, it depends. Local activism like this is effective, and you can see the results in front of you, but that is not enough. You also have to engage the entire continent, or the entire world. Because you might think that it’s enough just focusing on your own local area, and how its impacted by climate change, but you hear and see news from other places that show crimes that affect these things. So I think it’s important to reach out locally and globally. That’s why we thought it was important to join social media, to share our ideas with people around the world, so they can learn from us, and do projects like these where they live. That’s why a lot of our social media posts are intended to show them how to do effective local hands-on activism.
It’s so great to see people from the Global South getting involved internationally in climate activism, because those places are being, and will be, more affected by climate change than most places in the Global North, and they’ve contributed less to the problem. For a long time, you’ve been excluded from that story. Do you think there are fewer activists in those places, or that you’ve just been excluded?
Yes, I think it goes beyond some people’s awareness that it’s even an option for them. But then, there aren’t necessarily more activists in the Global North. Here in Uganda, we now have many active climate activists. But they can’t get media coverage, compared to what’s happening in Europe, for example. Those people have all the coverage. I’ve been actively working on this for over two and a half years, and in that time, we’ve had very little media attention. So how can you know there are activists in the Global South, when we are not given a chance to speak up on behalf of even our big events? We just don’t receive the same coverage as those in the Global North. In the North, if one kid wakes up one day and decides he’s going to be an activist, he’s going to be given a platform, compared to what is happening in the South.
But here in the South, activists are very active and hard-working. There are many, compared to what you see of us in the Global North. I know a lot of full-time activists just here in Uganda. When you go to Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, there are many more. We are just lacking coverage. So Vanessa is left as the only one to speak for us to the rest of the world. But there are many more voices here. That’s the challenge we are facing right now. They only care about those with a big following. I don’t know why that is, but every day, there are people here in Uganda, and people all over Africa, who wake up and are doing something to try to save themselves, who are this minute working to stop those who are destroying our communities and our planet.
And they are working to save our indigenous populations, as well. For example, there is a forest which was recently sold to a sugar cane company known as Hoima Sugar Limited. And the indigenous people cried for the loss of this forest. This forest was their home, and some were farming in that forest. There are some who had invested their money in trees, who thought it would benefit them in the coming years. But the forest was sold by the government. And these activists we’re talking about are the ones who came out and started protesting against this sale, asking for that forest to be returned to those people. However, they were silenced by the government. So we are many, and when we make noise, they listen, but they are not always successful. That media coverage from the Global North would make a difference in things like this.
Is there some sort of coalition, either globally, or within Africa, that allows you to coordinate with other activists, or perhaps could help you elevate your voices internationally, or do you have to rely on social media alone for that?
We tried to do that, but failed. For me today – I’m somehow different from other activists in Uganda, because at least I know some activist from the Global North who are following me, and who are trying to be my friend. I have asked them to help us get some media coverage, and they say they will try. That’s all they can do. So we are trying for collaboration, but everyone who gets media coverage can only suggest that they speak to me. And those activists tell me that the media will only be interested if we focus on what they want to talk about, and only say what they want us to say. You must talk about what they want to discuss. So they won’t talk about your activism or about other activists in Africa.
Let me give you that opportunity now, then. Are there other activists in Africa who you know are doing good work, but aren’t being recognized more broadly?
In Uganda today, we have many who are active in this work. We have feminist activists, and those doing tree planting, or solar energy, working every day to get their messages out. There is Leah Namugerwa, who works with me on Fridays for Future. She’s based in Uganda. There’s Joan and Clare, who are feminists fighting for girl’s and women’s rights. There’s Monari Julius (Ochwangi). He’s in Kenya, doing active work on the ground, engaging communities and doing tree plantings, like me. There is a guy called Mulindwa Moses, who is also based in Uganda, and is doing community work with us. In Togo, there is Kaossara Sani. She’s been working on installing some bore holes in that community. There is also Patricia Kombo, who is in Kenya. She provides seedlings to the community. You can also google 1millionActivist stories, or the Rise Up movement, and you can see their names and learn about what they’re doing. They are very active.
If you could speak to someone at one of the big news companies in the Global North, like BBC or CNN, what would you say to convince them they should be covering stories about these African activists?
Africa contributes the least to global warming, but is affected more than most other places, so we have decided to wake up and fight for ourselves. These youths who have come up with some innovation, or meaningful work, they need media coverage. They shouldn’t have to let someone in the Global North speak for them. The media should be reaching out to people on the ground, who are doing active work. Recently, I saw Louisa Neubaurer, the German climate activist, was being interviewed, and they asked her about the Global South. I was surprised that they didn’t approach someone who is actually here to talk about what is happening in the Global South. It frustrates us. It makes us feel down, makes us feel invisible.
We ask ourselves, “are we able to be seen?” We sometimes wonder if those who are following us aren’t human, but are just bots. These activists are doing their best, and if we are fighting for 1.5 degrees, we need everyone to contribute as much as possible. The media should be talking to them. I may not have a big following yet, but maybe I have some ideas that people in the North haven’t thought of yet. So I think it would be better if we talked to both sides and compared them, to see if we can get ideas from each other. Here in Africa, there are things that we need. Each country, or even each district, is facing different challenges, meaning that you can’t expect someone from one district to talk about the challenges in another district, because they aren’t facing the same challenges. Working together would make all of our efforts more effective.
Nyombi Morris is a 23 year-old climate justice activist from Kampala, Uganda. He works with the non-profit organization Rise Up Movement, which is based in Uganda and led by prominent climate activist Vanessa Nakate. Nyombi is also an ambassador for the Human Race Campaign within OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
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