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Jessica Bwali: Why I became a climate activist

Tearfund's Jessica Bwali takes us on her journey from radio journalist to climate activist.

Edited by Tarryn Pegna | 27 Jan 2023

Jessica being interviewed by a person with a microphone and camera.

Jessica has been interviewed by media from around the world to speak about the climate crisis. | Image credit: Joseph Cobb/Tearfund

My climate activism journey started sometime in 2019, when my home country of Zambia experienced some of the worst load shedding [rolling power cuts because of a shortage of electricity]. At that time, I was hosting the breakfast show for a local radio station in a place called Solwezi. Being on the radio, everybody assumes that you know everything, and lots of people were calling in asking questions like, ‘why don't we have power in our area?’ I didn't have the answers.

So, I did some research to find out.

How it started…

In Zambia, we use hydropower. We have a dam called Kariba Dam, where they generate the electricity from – and we also export this electricity to our neighbouring countries, like Zimbabwe and Malawi.

But, in 2019, the water levels of the dam had got really low because we didn't have the normal amount of rainfall, so there was not enough power.

There was already a high level of unemployment in Zambia, and the lack of power meant that many young people who had created jobs for themselves – like small salons, or barber shops, or restaurants – couldn't run their businesses. That resulted in poverty and crime levels going up.

We also have a lot of small scale farmers in Zambia – people who live from the field to the table. It affected them too when the rain did not come.

‘There was chaos. And it was all related to climate change.’

As I researched, I also discovered that Zambia as a country contributes very little to carbon emissions. And yet, it's facing a lot of adverse climate change effects.

How does a person who has done nothing directly to cause a problem, get to suffer more than the person who is in the forefront of causing that problem?

This is a lot of injustice.

How it’s going…

I moved on from radio in Zambia to an internship with the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Germany. There, I felt like God was giving me an opportunity to learn even more about climate issues. My interest became particularly focused on climate justice and gender – because when you read statistics about climate change, you find that women and young children are affected the most.

More injustice.

After my internship in Germany, I got a job with the Methodist Church in the UK working on a global climate change project. As part of the campaign, one of the things we had to do was to shoot some short films. The first one had to be shot in Zambia.

What I saw was a big trigger for me in becoming even more passionate about climate activism.

The real story

As part of making the film, I went to the southern part of Zambia, to a village called Nzambale, where a lot of people are livestock farmers. They need a lot of water, and a lot of vegetation for their animals to feed on, but the province was super, super dry. You could feel the heat.

A woman who lived in the area was helping to show us around, and she took me to a place that she told me was a river. To me, it just looked like a ditch. Like a very, very big ditch.

She told me stories of how this river had killed many people because of how it floods – but here I was standing on the river bed because it was so dry.

‘There was nothing. Only a little stream of water on the side and a tiny, shallow well.’

While we were there, a herd of 50 to 100 cattle came to drink water. The woman explained that the cattle were from another village – which means that the whole way that they had walked, they hadn’t found any water until they got to that place.

There was also an elderly woman who had come, bringing a small bottle to draw water with. At one point, when my camera was in her direction, she drew some water at the tiny well and drank straight from it. I was shocked. I thought: ‘Wait, is this where animals are coming to drink from, and people are also coming to drink from here? It's hazardous!’

Later, as I sat down and looked at the photos and videos, it really struck me: ‘This is not right. This is an elderly woman who had come from many miles away to draw water from this shallow hole. And the water was definitely not safe. But what else could she do? This was the only source for miles. It's do or die.’

And it broke my heart.

A different story

These are the people that, when it comes to carbon emissions, are on the frontline of the harmful effects – and yet they contribute nothing at all to the problem.

If you live in a country where you can just walk to your kitchen, open the tap, get water and drink, and no one gets sick, it may feel okay to carry on playing with fossil fuels as if it does not affect anybody's life.

But, for the person that is on the receiving end of all that, it’s a different story. It's the opposite. It’s worlds apart.

Out there is somebody drawing water from the ground directly. Probably they walked from miles away to get it.

I started thinking of the countries out there that don't know the elderly woman's story. I had been there where she was. I had that interaction and that connection. Maybe if I could tell them her story, they might change?

Because, when we go to conferences, for example the UN Climate Conference, sometimes some of the real issues are not brought out, because the people who are living the story are not really given the space to attend.

It's almost as though there’s a sense of, ‘Oh, we are going to meet, we are going to make decisions. We are going to make pledges…and then we are going to go back to our countries and continue with the lives that we've been living, continue with our carbon emissions, continue with our fossil fuels. Then, next time, we’ll come back and make commitments again.’

If we do not act on the pledges made and take seriously the decisions taken to make a difference, it feels, to some extent, like it's a mockery to people that are actually living a life that is threatened daily. 

Jessica at the UN Climate Conference in Egypt speaking into a megaphone.

Jessica attended the UN Climate Conference in Egypt last year with Tearfund. | Image credit: Joseph Cobb/Tearfund

Around the world

It's now on record that 2022 was the hottest year ever in the UK, but other countries around the world have already been living this reality on a daily basis and facing the adverse effects for years.

Right now, in East Africa, there are the worst droughts that they have experienced in many years. As a result, there is acute poverty. There is widespread malnutrition. All because of climate change.

I need to imagine, am I doing enough for those people?

I have experienced climate change firsthand. My father was a farmer and there was never a time, growing up, that we would go to the market to buy veggies, because they were just in the backyard. But it's no longer like that because of the drastic change in weather patterns.

Now, farmers plant their crops, and then the rains stop, and the seeds in the ground get damaged. They don't germinate. That means they have to redo the planting. Can you imagine the cost? 

‘How are farmers going to sustain themselves? How are they going to survive?’

People that I know are living this story.

So, for me, to even bring one person's story out there to the world is important. It could change people’s attitudes. It could change something.

Moving forward

So where do we go from this point?

If people can think about the actions that we're taking today, and always think about the other person out there, we may maybe get to a place where it's manageable.

‘How is what I’m doing going to affect the other person in the next country? In the next house? In the next village? And so on.’

Because the crisis is here. The change is already happening.

This is everyone's baby to nurse. It's not about which faith you belong to, which country you belong to, which race you belong to, what colour you are, what you don't believe in… It goes beyond all that.

There's no other place for us to go to if we just continue messing this place up!

Being a Christian has helped me keep hope. I always go back to the Bible. I go back to ‘Where do I draw my strength from? I draw my strength from God.’ What does God expect me to do?

God expects me to tend this garden. God expects me to be a steward of this garden. So, if I don't also do my part, then I'm hypocritical.

Practical solutions

Three practical things that all of us can do are: reduce, reuse, recycle. 

‘These are daily things – and the good part is that you can literally do these from your household. You don't have to start a campaign, You don't have to have 100 people.’

Ask yourself: ‘What is it that I can reuse? What is it that I can reduce? Is it the foods that I’m eating? Is it certain behaviours? Is it reducing travel? Are there habits that I can pick up that are good? And what can I maybe just completely do away with?’

I’ve had the same water bottle for years. I could buy a new bottle every day. But is that the right thing for me to do? What consequences would come with that? And if I have one water bottle and I keep on reusing it, what are some of the positive effects?

Recycling is something that a lot of young people are actively involved in. So, here is a challenge to the young people – why not get a group together and pick up litter and recycle it?

In various countries in Africa, young people are doing things like recycling plastic to make floor tiles or build houses. These innovations are not only protecting the environment, but also helping people make money out of it!

Poverty is not God’s plan, but the church is

To church leaders, political leaders, country leaders, and traditional leaders, I would like to say: These are real issues that you need to bring to your people. If you don't help them in these practical things that they can do to protect the nation where you're leading, it will get into chaos.

Especially for the church leaders – there's this trust that a lot of people have in church leaders. In my country, people would rather listen to a church leader than a politician, because they believe that a church leader is speaking the truth.

So, maybe it means one Sunday in a month you make it an environmental Sunday? Have this conversation. Get people to do what they are able to as a church in the community that you are in.

Are you going to do some cleaning in your community once a month? Are you going to do some recycling? Are you going to plant some trees? Those are practical things that may not even need a big budget.

You just need your presence and your willingness, that's all.

Because this is a collective thing. It needs a whole lot of people.

And at the end of the day, we are all on the same planet that's been affected. If we work together, it may actually make a difference.

Pray with us

    • Pray for the people who have done the least to contribute to the climate crisis, and yet are facing the worst of its consequences. Ask that God will provide for them and that leaders of wealthier nations will honour their pledges to provide help for the most vulnerable.
    • Pray for the local church around the world to be at the forefront of finding solutions to the climate crisis.
    • Pray that we will all be willing to do our part to make a difference in the crisis, and in so doing to honour God’s call to us to love one another and to care for creation.

Edited by

Edited by  Tarryn Pegna

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