Interview With Olive Wangui
Inspiring climate activists

Interview with Olive Wangui_Nairobi
© Julian Manjahi

For many people, the presence of the climate crisis crystallizes in a small moment—perhaps a single image or string of words—and, with that realization and the urgency that accompanies it, action. Often, these moments resonate with a sense of personal threat (“This is real, and I am going to be negatively affected”), but many other times, it resonates with the realization that others are suffering. 

For Olive Wangui, an undergraduate studying social work at Moi University who organized a climate strike at her school, it was the latter.
While she was interning at World Vision, Wangui travelled with her team to the Tana River Delta, where they passed from household to household, running surveys to gauge how to best distribute resources. They eventually came across the small hut of a woman who was taking care of five young children. She was seventy-eight years old. The elderly woman told Wangui then that the children’s mother had left them to look for food but never came back. “That’s when it hit me that the effects of climate change are here,” Wangui says. “I really felt that this is something people need to do something about.”
Wangui felt that she needed to take action. It was around this time that she got a Twitter account and started reading about Greta Thunberg, the sixteen-year-old Swedish climate activist who in 2018 began skipping school on Fridays, sitting outside the Swedish Parliament with a sign that read, “School Strike for the Climate.” Climate strikes have since spread to schools around the world, reaching a fever pitch on 20 September 2019, ahead of the United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York, when millions of people in over one hundred countries striked for the climate. That day, Nairobi was among those cities in the world where a climate strike took place. Thanks to Wangui’s organizing, Eldoret was too. “I don’t want to be one that just talks,” says Wangui. “We need to do this. If someone says to me, ‘I hear you talking, but what are you personally doing about the environment,’ that’s when I can say that plant trees, organize clean-ups. It’s not all about the talk.”
To prepare for the strike, Wangui visited local churches and organizations to gather support. Surprisingly, she said, they were all on board. “I like how Greta put it where you took time off school, go to town hall or Parliament with your [posters] so that you create awareness to the government to do something about the environment, and get the attention of Kenyans.” On 20 September, they marched from Moi University’s campus to Eldoret town centre, including the Senator’s office. The idea of striking is important to Wangui. She says she wanted it to happen on a school day, not a weekend, because the action is meant to disrupt the “normal” flow of day-to-day events and responsibilities.
Like striking workers, students and other people all around the world gathered en masse to create pause in society, to define and state a problem as well as the action that must be taken, and perhaps more importantly, through their sheer numbers, to embody the urgency, scale, and stakes of climate change. If climate change is truly as much of an existential crisis as the evidence shows, we would expect to see urgent measures taken, and at the least, an ever-present communal panic. But, as Thunberg stated in her 2018 TEDx Stockholm speech, “People keep doing what they do because the vast majority doesn’t have a clue about the actual consequences of our everyday lives.... Because, how could we? If there really was a crisis, and this crisis was caused by our emissions, you would at least see some signs.... No one is acting as if we are in crisis.”
Because of its geography, Kenya is prone to cyclical droughts and floods, all of which have been exacerbated and disrupted by climate change. As in the case of the woman from the Tana River Delta that Wangui met, Kenyans with insufficient resources to adapt to the growing, irregular shifts in climate patterns, are left most vulnerable. The goal of the U.N. Summit which took place days after the global climate strike, was to push countries to commit to tougher climate targets. Although the 2015 Paris Agreement set a target to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, at present, greenhouse gas emissions are only continuing to rise around the world. The United States, the largest historical carbon dioxide emitter, is even trying to leave the Paris accord. Yet, as Wangui says, “When it comes to climate, it is everyone’s responsibility,” says Wangui. “At the end of the day, we will all breathe this air, we will all need water, we will all want our children to grow up in a quality environment.”
Climate strikes recognize the urgent need for action, and school strikes in particular clearly name (and are indeed organized by) those who will suffer the consequences of inaction: the young, the poor, those from the global south. In this way, their demand for “sustainability” is far from advocating for a hazy ideal in the future: the student strikers who marched alongside Wangui in Eldoret, young Kenyans, will live lives that are shaped by the threat, looming and present, of climate change. Striking for the climate demands the future from those who control it in the present.
Sustainability is, after all, an exercise in moving your feet with your eye into the future. Wangui defines sustainability as any development that “makes its pioneers irrelevant”—something that is conceived with a view of the horizon and, when its conceivers disappear, keeps walking. She plans to organize another strike before she graduates.