At the Forefront
by Raeesah Chandlay
For many of us, the effects of the climate crisis are still seen as a distant catastrophe waiting to happen. But this Climate Leader has been at its epicentre for as long as she can remember. Risper grew up in the flood-prone Budalang’i Constituency in western Kenya. Life in Budalang’i was unstable and unpredictable.
In Kenya, temperatures are soaring, rainfall patterns have become increasingly irregular, and extreme weather is now the norm. Some regions are facing prolonged drought whilst others are experiencing severe floods.
Budalang’i is declared a national disaster area on an annual basis. Many lives are lost to raging waters every year. Risper and her family have had to relocate to higher grounds as the floods washed away their property. There were times she had to miss school for months on end.
The impacts of the floods have been devastating for the community. In times of flooding, people are forced to seek refuge at temporary camps that lack proper sanitation, exposing them to poor living conditions, and water-borne diseases. Each rainy season, crops and livestock are lost, leading to increased food insecurity, forcing many to rely on donations.
Fighting the Fight for the Voiceless
Risper’s climate activism began in 2015 upon joining a tree-planting project with the East African Wildlife Society in the Kereita Forest at the edge of the Aberdare Mountain Range. A guest at the event spoke of the effects of climate change and mitigation strategies, with a strong focus on tree planting. The event is where Risper’s passion was ignited. She also reflected on her background in Budalang’i. Connecting the dots, she realised that it was time for her to take action. She has since joined several environmental groups and networks and has been at the forefront of advocating for climate justice.
In 2019, Risper joined the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) and organised a tree-planting and Mara River conservation activity on Nelson Mandela Day in Narok County. This was the first event she had initiated, and it gave her a great sense of pride and joy to have influenced others. She went on to pioneer a youth-led organisation called Beyond the Trails Kenya. Through this initiative, she was able to motivate and mobilize friends to participate in tree-planting and climate literacy activities.
Two years later, Risper trained as a Climate Reality Leader through Climate Reality’s Global Climate Leadership Corps. She felt that since the climate crisis is a global emergency, she wanted to engage on a global platform, citing the words of Barack Obama as an influence:
“We are the first generation to feel the effects of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.”
The training has helped Risper build the confidence to spread climate literacy and awareness. She even managed to convince an old friend and climate denier to join her cause. Together with her new comrades, Risper capped off 2021 by planting 200 trees at a primary school in Nairobi County. The event was held on the 12th of December in honour of Kenya Independence Day.
Risper is also passionate about wildlife conservation, the preservation of biodiversity, and the protection of forests. She completed a BSc degree in Wildlife Management and Conservation at the University of Nairobi.
The Challenges of Climate Activism
Being at the forefront of climate activism has its challenges. In 2020, over 200 climate activists were killed globally. Risper remembers Kenya’s own Joannah Stutchbury who was shot dead in July last year while campaigning against developers encroaching on the Kiambu Forest near Nairobi. Sadly, Joannah was not the first environmental activist to be assassinated in Kenya.
Risper herself faces a fair amount of backlash. Many believe that the climate emergency is solely the government’s responsibility. People don’t know that it is within their rights to demand justice. It is also not easy to garner support in areas of rampant poverty. Yet the two are inextricably linked, which is why it is important to engage in conversations about climate justice.
There is a general lack of knowledge and awareness surrounding climate change in Africa. Risper plans to continue her activism in full force this year. She has set a target to bring climate literacy to at least five schools, reaching around 5000 children. She also plans to mobilize and create awareness ahead of COP27. She feels that for it to be a success, more dialogues and conversations are needed for African governments to start seeing activists and NGOs as key stakeholders and not antagonists.
Stressing that it is not about individual needs and comforts, her advice to fellow climate activists is to keep on fighting for the voiceless – the marginalised and vulnerable and for future generations and wildlife.
“1.5 degrees is already too hot for Kenya to bear.”
African Voices for Africa’s Future