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Lesedi: Hi, I’m Lesedi Mogoathle and you’re listening to Radio Workshop. The other day I was chatting with one of our producers about the next series of stories we are making. They’re about climate change and frankly, the topic is terrifying. More flooding, more fires, less food, less water, less life.
The predictions for Africa are dire.
The intergovernmental panel on climate change, a United Nation’s body for assessing the signs says Africa is one of the most vulnerable to climate change. And you might be thinking, I can’t solve all of that. Those horrific predictions are outside my control. And maybe you feel helpless and alone. It’s heartache, it’s despair.
Or maybe for you it’s pure rage. Or denial. This is what we’ve come to call climate grief. What you are feeling is what so many are feeling. Today we have an essay from a climate reporter in Zambia. Her name is Rebecca Mbaama. She’s 23 years old. She’s also studying environmental law at the University of Lusaka where she’s working hard to graduate, but sometimes even she wonders what’s the point?
Here’s her story.
Rebecca: Okay, so hear me out. I feel like giving up sometimes. I really do. I don’t want to admit that to you. Who would? But I have my own reasons for wanting to say I can’t take it anymore. Consider this. We as Africans suffer the most from climate change, and yet Africa contributes almost nothing to the problem.
So why do we have to pay the price for the problems others create? How can we be expected to fix what we didn’t break? Recently we’ve had droughts in Ethiopia, floods in South Africa, wildfires across Algeria. Nearly every country in Africa has its own climate disaster, and that’s just the tip of the problem.
It’s literally killing us. But I’m also not the kind of person who says, that’s not my problem. I learned that from my mom. She always taught me to work hard and not to back down. She would say, you have to believe in yourself, Rebecca. You have to keep going and be strong, but honestly, some days I feel like I’m not cut out for this work.
It’s like I told someone recently, I wish Africa could just leave the planet, you know, take off, fly away, leave the rest of the world and its problems behind like, yo, bye, I’m gone.
But I’m an African. And if there’s one thing that we do best. It’s to find solutions. I learned that from my mother too. Sure, we do love to complain… People will say, it’s getting too hot. It wasn’t like this before. Maybe God is punishing us, but soon enough we do move on and we do something about it. We refuse to stand on the sidelines as the rest of the world makes decisions for us and without us. We have no choice. We have to come together, which is easier said than done.
Lesedi: Africa, climate change, our status in the world. All of this came together for Rebecca when she was still in high school. That’s when Agents of Change Foundation paid them a visit. There are youth-led NGO working on many issues including climate change. They spoke about why Zambians needed to stop cutting down trees and how big corporations were not the only ones to blame for deforestation.
It was also everyday people who cut down forests in villages all over the country, not because they wanted to, but because they had to.
Rebecca: People need firewood to cook and stay warm, so I get it. My mother did it too. After what I learned, I would confront her about it, be all righteous about it. She would say, do you want to take a bath in cold water? Do you want to eat hot food? And that would just shut me up. Like, girl, keep quiet.
I have a big mouth sometimes. But I also knew she was proud of my big mouth. That’s why Agents of Change eventually chose me as the Climate Change Ambassador. I got to travel around Lusaka with them hosting and producing radio shows.
I was spreading an important message across the country about climate change, but there’s actually no word for it in my language. In fact, many African languages don’t have a word for climate change.
I loved every minute of working for Agents of Change. Even though I wasn’t getting paid, I volunteered my time to talk with people. I was good at it. It was hard work and really tiring, but I was always hungry to do more. Around the same time, I was invited to a quiz about climate change, and that’s where I met a lawyer.
I don’t remember his name anymore, sadly. It was a long time ago. But what I remember the most is what he told me. He said he needed more people like me to join his fight in the courtroom. That had never occurred to me before. He was an environmental lawyer working on cases where companies mining copper were accused of chemical spews. They had polluted the rivers and poisoned the land. It made me so angry hearing all of this, and that was the moment when I decided to become a lawyer.
I’m so close to graduating. Law School hasn’t been easy. I’ve had to fight a voice in my head that tells me I won’t make it. It makes me question and doubt myself, especially when I have a lot of assignments and tons of laws to memorize.
Cases too. Everything from pollution to poaching. It’s hard to read about what we do to the planet, but I’m proud to have made it this far and I think my mom would be proud of me too. And while I’m studying, I also help out at home. I work at my sister’s shop, selling clothes during the week. On weekends, I will sometimes get hired to cook meals for people.
I love cooking, by the way. My mother taught us how to do many things. She always had clever ideas of how we would make money and how to survive.
When I was younger, my mom and I would find plastic bottles. People threw our church and school. We would wash and boil them until they were clean. Then we would fill each one with clean water. And sell them. Everyone in the neighborhood knew I had the best water, especially in the summertime when it got really hot. On those days I could sell every bottle in less than an hour.
I miss my mom. I think about her so much. I remember this one time I was sitting at the kitchen table with my brother and sister. We had a pot of beans to share between us. I still remember how good they were. There was only a small portion for each of us, but this time my brother wanted a bigger share and my sister and I were not having it and started yelling at him. And then at each other, my mom heard us from the other room. She came running into the kitchen. Now she was yelling too, why are you people arguing? Give me that pot. She grabbed the pot from us. I think some of the beans even spilled on the ground. I remember saying to her, it’s not my fault that there’s not enough food.
As soon as I said it, I felt guilty. She was trying so hard as a single parent, and there I was with my big mouth as usual. I was a teenager then. I was full of pride, so I never got to say I was sorry and I never will. My mom died a few months later and that changed everything for my siblings and me.
From that day on, I had to become a mother to my siblings. I am not the oldest, but I feel as though I owe it to my mom to dedicate my life to helping everyone around me. People sometimes give up when they lose a parent. I couldn’t, I wouldn’t, I didn’t have time for that.
A few months ago, I was sitting in my dorm room with my friends, exams were coming up. That’s when my phone rang. It was the Agents of Change Foundation, the one I joined in high school. They wanted a copy of my passport. This time they’re recruiting me to be a youth reporter, and this time they wanted me to cover the climate change talks in Egypt at the COP27, the world’s biggest meeting on climate change
It was like being invited into the biggest courtroom in the world to defend my home and speak about the things that matter to us. Finally, I was going to tell the world leaders how their decisions affect us in Africa. But before any of that happened, I needed to get a visa. That might sound easy to you, right? But I’d never flown on a plane or traveled outside Zambia before. And I was so terrified.
Lesedi: With just a few days to go before the trip to Egypt, Rebecca’s visa was still not ready. But COP had started and she still had a job to do. That meant interviewing a famous climate change activist on her phone.
Emi: Hi, Rebecca. Thank you so much for having me. As you know, my name is Emtithal Mahmoud. I’m called Emi. I’m a poet and a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.
Rebecca: Emi had just spent the whole day at COP attending meetings and talking to delegates, and she was back in her hotel room for our interview.
Emi: I am feeling tired physically, but invigorated emotionally.
Rebecca: You might know her. She’s the world’s champion slam poet.
Her poems are so powerful, and she’s a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Refugee Agency. She’s also from Defor in Sudan. That’s where the world’s first climate change conflict happened. Emi’s family managed to escape to the US when she was just a year old.
Emi: The village that my dad was born in doesn’t exist anymore. Combination of conflict and climate change, right? So, when people talk about extinction, sometimes it kind of makes me laugh because they talk about the dinosaurs or things like that, and I’m just like, you don’t need to go back that far to find, like, examples of extinction. We’re facing it right now.
Lesedi: So remember, Emi is in Egypt in a hotel room. Rebecca is still in Zambia. She’s standing outside her dormitory to avoid disturbing her roommates. Try to picture this, Rebecca juggling a phone in one hand, a recorder in the other in the dark because the power is out and swatting bugs that are trying to eat her alive, but even they couldn’t stop her from doing this interview with Emi.
Rebecca: I have heard your work with refugees. Can you explain how climate change impacts African refugees?
Emi: Over 70% of refugees come from highly climate, vulnerable countries, and that includes countries in Africa, and yet, even though Africa is most affected, by climate change, only 4% of global climate finance goes to Africa. Can you imagine? Just 4%, just four.
Rebecca: Like I was reading, and I’m shocked. I’m like, but anyway, I know it’s like this. Can we just remove Africa from planet Earth? We remove ourselves from these problems, but we can’t.
Emi: Oh my gosh, I’m done. Can we just remove Africa from planet Earth?
Rebecca: If it’s possible, because it’s like we’re not contributing much to the impact, but we’re feeling the effect.
Emi: Mm-hmm. We need to pull it a Wakanda. We, we just have to self isolate. No, I’m kidding. I’m kidding. No, no, no, no. That’s the opposite of what we need to do. Don’t quote me that. I’m not saying that as a goodwill ambassador. I was saying that as a kid from Philly. We need Wakanda. No, I’m kidding. Um, but I understand.
I understand your feelings. I understand that response that, wow, we the most vulnerable countries to climate change. Are the least responsible for the effects of climate change, and yet they somehow end up being the most responsible for cleaning it up. This needs to be changed.
Rebecca: Whew. Finally, my visa came through. I remember sitting at the airport during a long layover with the other reporters from Africa. I was so hungry. The food at the airport is so expensive. It’s in moments like this, I miss my mom’s cooking. She probably wouldn’t have let me leave home without packing some of her delicious cooking.
But a few hours later, we finally landed in Egypt and it was time for me to cover COP27.
Rebecca’s Audio Diary: What a day, 15th of November, 2022. Second day at the COP. It’s been a hectic day. I’m tired. I’m exhausted. Hungry. Depressed. So today, my day…
Rebecca: I recorded this late at night in my hotel room with a stack of books next to me.
I was studying for my exams in the evenings and working at the conference during the day. Believe me, it’s hard and I couldn’t stop thinking about my family back home. I still needed to go back and earn money. It took a lot out of me to juggle everything.
Rebecca’s Audio Diary: But yeah, apart from that, it was a good day and a stressful day at the same time. Second day at the COP still not having any badge. I didn’t have access to the blue ba, uh, the blue, the blue zone? Yeah, the blue zone. So in order for me to go to the blue zone, you’re supposed to have a badge, and I didn’t have it because my dates were just messed up…
Rebecca: At COP I’m supposed to interview people about deforestation for a story I’m working on. I’m meant to look for experts to help me understand the big issues in Africa, but I had no blue badge to get access to the venue.
So I thought to myself I will stay outside and interview people, and I learned I wasn’t alone. Lots of young people couldn’t get in. Reporters and others.
Maria: We had a lot of hopes for this COP because it is the first cup happening in the global south in years, but it’s been the most inaccessible one for global south people to get there.
Rebecca: This is Maria Reyes from Mexico. She’s from the Indigenous Future Network. Maria is only 20 years old, which makes her one of the youngest people at COP.
Maria: So that is very disappointing. Very, very, very disappointing. And I’m pretty sure that for African people it’s even more disappointing. It’s the first time you have…
Rebecca: I understand mistakes happen, but some people said this was deliberate. All I know is I was disappointed.
Maria: Yeah, I, I would say, I feel you. I feel your frustration, your pain, your anger, and I know it feels like you have been left out, so I want you to know that we also, at least I, do not forget about that.
Rebecca: Thank you so much Maria. Like, I’m, I’m about to cry. I’m like, this is emotional. Like it’s hitting home. And thank you very much for sparing your minutes and time to just have this interview with me. Thank you so much.
Maria: Thank you so much for the space and you know…
Rebecca: So in some ways COP was not a big success for me. Yes, I was able to record a few interviews, but really I felt let down, I had such high hopes. But in the end, the biggest breakthrough from the talks was the creation of the loss and damage fund. Developing countries have been asking for this for the past three decades. They need money to cope with climate change. I’m so glad at least one good thing came out of these talks.
I am going to be a lawyer soon. I’m so happy I just found out I passed my exams after all those late nights studying in Egypt. Soon I will be fighting in the courtroom. I will do what needs to be done, and I will attend COP28 in Dubai. This time I want to be in the blue zone to speak for Africa, and I’m not alone in this fight.
There are so many other young fighters out there. I hope we all have the opportunity to fight with Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate. And don’t forget my sister Emi, whose poem I will never forget.
Emi: If you are reading this, I forgive you. You have grown far from the heart of me, my child. Have lost a familiar love we held for one another in your first years of life. When you were young you used to marvel at the plants and critters that ran across my bosom. You worshiped the water, swam up and down my rivers, you drank from my rains. You laughed at each first snow, begged for sun on the cloudy days, you didn’t hesitate to sink your fingers into the mud of me and tickle…
Lesedi: Thank you to all the young climate activists around the world who are relentless in their fight for a more just and greener planet. While making the story, Rebecca juggled her schoolwork, a full-time internship and making sure she put food on the table at home one day while boiling water on the stove in her dormitory, Rebecca suffered a bad burn injury that needed medical attention. She took a moment to rest and recover, and within a couple of days she was back in the studio to wrap up the episode. Rebecca, thanks for not giving up. You’re our hero.
This story was written and produced by Rebecca Mbaama with support from our senior producer, Dhashen Moodley for Radio Workshop. Jo Jackson is our managing producer, Rob Rosenthal and I edited this podcast. Music by Blue Dot Sessions, sound engineering by Farhana Jacobs and Mike Rahfaldt. Our studio technician is Gio Musiwa.
We recorded this episode at the Natives Media Studio in Lusaka. This episode and the work of Radio Workshop would not be possible without the support of Bloomberg Philanthropies, the African Climate Foundation, and the Climate Emergency Collaboration Group. For more information and to support our work, visit our website at radioworkshop.org.
I’m Lesedi Mogoatlhe.