A couple months back, an eco-activist friend posted a link to a piece about sustainability in Rwanda that astonished me. Peeling back the layers of a piece that felt overall negative judging by the title alone--
"Public Shaming and Even Prison for Plastic Bag Use in Rwanda"
-- instead I felt presented with a gift of hope. Here was a totally different approach to sustainability from the elitist and exclusive one I'd observed in Philadelphia and New York City. However, the piece also felt like it was written from a critical outsider's perspective, one wary of larger political implications and less concerned with sustainability as a movement.
I longed to see and judge the situation for myself, but, these days, with a home that doubles as a children's petting zoo, a trip to Africa is not possible. At 18, when I took off a year before college, I did visit Northern Africa for three glorious weeks while working and backpacking around the Middle East. That trip gave me a small sense of the vastness of Africa-- not only in the 19 hour train ride from Cairo to Aswan but in the unforgettable vision of a night sky blanketed by blistering constellations of stars. Skies undiluted by city lights and a sight I'd never see the like of again anywhere else in the world. However, since that kind of exploratory, aimless wandering isn't in the stars (pun intended sorry) at the moment, it occurred to me I could devote the next few entries of Vintage Tea, my blog's interview section, to chatting about sustainability with the online friends that I've been lucky enough to connect with in different parts of Africa and who have seen or experienced those sustainable developments for themselves.
To prepare for these chats, I also tried to read up on Africa, but even that presented a challenge. Africa, I learned, is an even bigger continent than I had imagined it to be that night on a felucca ride in Egypt when I slept out in the open under blistering starlight. Did you know over 2,000 languages are spoken in Africa? Or that the continent is so large it's the only continent to span the northern temperate to the southern temperate zones?
Trying to get a grasp on sustainability in Africa has proved both more fascinating and more elusive than I expected. From a burgeoning eco-tourism industry in Botswana to Rwanda's nationwide ban on plastic bags, Africa is currently dealing with the consequences of climate change in more immediate, tangible terms than people in the U.S. and facing those challenges with exciting and innovative responses. Too often, Westerners still mischaracterize Africa as being undeveloped. In college, I remember my Nigerian suitemate often and insultingly being asked whether her childhood home had a bathroom or electricity, whereas the truth is that even with sometimes smaller economies or fewer resources to face greater climate change challenges, some African countries are actually leading the way. For example, the Seychelles GDP might be 170th in the world, but it also ranks among the best in the world for the most protected areas not to mention its inspiring success stories about lowering the threat level for its endangered species. Or take Nigeria, Togo, Tanzania, and Zambia: all actually way ahead of the U.S. if you measure the rankings by countries belching out the least CO2 per capita vs. one of the most per capita.
I hope to continue this sustainability in Africa series with more responses and to learn even more about this incredibly diverse continent. (There are over 500 languages spoken in Nigeria alone!) I'm so delighted to start off this series chatting with the beautiful sustainable fashion blogger Paula Mugabi @mspaulapresents.
Here's a glimpse into sustainable developments in Uganda from an insider's perspective.
1. Thank you again for taking the time to chat with me! Where are you from in Africa?
2. What are some of your observations about the sustainability movement in Africa?
Uganda, like most of sub Saharan Africa, has suffered significant devastation from the negative effects of climate change. The problems are exacerbated by population pressures, while family size grows exponentially but yet remain reliant on subsistence farming. There is a growing consciousness by the central and local governments, the education system and the population generally that living sustainably is an imperative now. For example, businesses like Eco Fuel Africa, which converts farm and municipal waste into briquettes used as a substitute for charcoal, are introducing transformative changes.
There are also some passionate youth activists like Vanessa Nakate and some up-cycling designers, but I would not say there is a groundswell like it’s here in the United States. But it is also just a fact that Ugandans have a much lower carbon footprint than the average American, because of way they live. They consume less because they generally are not wealthy and daily lives are lived more sustainably. The average Ugandan likely does not use paper towels and eats locally grown organic whole foods. There is some plastic use in households; some of which is repurposed for other uses like storing leftovers but cheap plastic has proliferated in last couple of years, although the Ugandan government introduced a ban on single-use plastics.
3. What are you most hopeful about for the future of sustainability?
At the macro level, the government should be doing more to embrace the clear science on climate change. Steps like banning single-use plastic bags and fully embracing the science are all encouraging signs. It also helps that Ugandans can be quite innovative: I see up-cycling projects like using used plastics for jewelry, bags, toys and even housewares. Uganda is sunny throughout the year so it’s my hope that solar power continues to pick up.
There are, however, some serious challenges. There is rapid urbanization and motorization which is affecting air quality, increasing incidence of respiratory diseases. While there have been attempts to ban the import of used cars, there are still too many on the roads, contributing to poor air quality.
Also western countries dump used clothes to our second hand markets but many such clothes are in such poor state that they end up not being sold and end up in landfills.
Paula is a Ugandan American mom and sustainable fashion blogger currently living in New York City. She can be found on Instagram @mspaulapresents.
Thank you again, Paula!
Here are some articles I linked above and a few more for further reading below. Please keep your eye out for more in this series as well.
Africa is Leading the World in Plastic Bag Bans
An Amazing Conservation Success Story in the Seychelles
Tanzania to Ban Single Use Plastics, Joining Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda
How Botswana is Shaping the Future of Sustainable Travel
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