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Talking to Dr Tiwonge: plastics, trees and Tearfund

Tearfund partner, Dr Tiwonge Gawa from Malawi, talks about ecology, connections and why she’s passionate about plastics.

Written by Tarryn Pegna | 10 Nov 2023

Dr Twionge Gawa sits smiling in a black top against a white background.

Dr Tiwonge Gawa is a mum, a wife, an ecologist and an activist. She lives in Malawi and has a PhD in Ecological Sciences from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.

Dr Tiwonge Gawa describes herself as ‘a mum to beautiful twin girls, a wife, an ecologist by training, and an activist by passion.’ She quickly goes on to clarify that she uses the word ‘passion’ because, she says, ‘the things that I am advocating for are things that I personally relate to.’

Being able to personally relate to things makes all the difference when trying to get people to understand the importance of lifestyle and policy changes. It’s why Dr Tiwonge believes that the most important thing we can invest in, is helping people to understand their relationship to and impact on the environment. She says, ‘we believe strongly that for people to change, they must decide to change. You cannot force them. They must make the decision.’

The journey to becoming an ecologist

For Dr Tiwonge, that decision and her own journey to becoming an ecologist and activist started on a university field trip surrounded by the vibrant reds and greens of the Miombo Woodlands. It’s a part of Machinga forest reserve, which is in Malawi (where Dr Tiwonge lives and works). She tells us, ‘it was at that time of the year that the Miombo trees have started to produce new leaves – so you’ve got greens and reds and tall trees with big trunks that branch at the top. You have big canopies up there and you can see quite far through the trunks of these big, big beautiful trees. It was a very beautiful forest.’ Sadly, Dr Tiwonge goes on to explain that a lot of the forest has since been cut down.

Before that time, Dr Tiwonge had known that she wanted to work in a subject that she enjoyed – ‘something that I could take as a hobby and a job at the same time,’ she says. Her favourite subject at school had been biology so when Dr Tiwonge went to university she says, ‘obviously, I majored in biology’. And this is where it all started. She explains, ‘We learned all sorts of types of biology, but the ones that I enjoyed the most were by one lecturer. Her subject was ecology and she took us into the forest to measure trees and that kind of thing. Before university, I had never been to a national park or anything like that, but when I went, I loved it! I enjoyed being in that space in the wild, in the fields, hearing the sounds and being amongst the trees. When I went into the forest I knew, this is it.’

‘Because I’m a Christian, I always say, “Why did God put this here? What is it doing for us?” When you understand the relationships, you start to realise the detail that exists.’
Dr Tiwonge Gawa, Ecologist and Christian

What does an ecologist do?

‘My interest is understanding the connections between things,’ Dr Tiwonge tells us. ‘Ecology is really studying relationships – how living things relate to each other – whether it’s animals and plants, or soil, the physical environment, the chemical environment – all those kinds of things.’

Where does faith fit with ecology?

‘I think studying the field of ecology has helped me to appreciate how particular God is about even the smallest little things,’ says Dr Tiwonge. ‘Because I’m a Christian, I always say, “Why did God put this here? What is it doing for us?” When you understand the relationships, you start to realise the detail that exists and you think “somebody has created this and had a mind to put everything [in exactly the perfect place]!”... I think that my faith has also helped me appreciate that there isn’t anything that is useless on this earth. We have to protect everything, because everything was put where it is for a very specific reason… So, it's really helped me appreciate the kind of God that I serve.’

Restoring ecosystems

Beyond understanding ecosystems, Dr Tiwonge’s work is also about restoring them. ‘A lot of our spaces have been modified,’ she says. ‘Some of them so much so that we cannot reverse them, but some are in a place where, if we act, we might be able to recover something. Restoration is about understanding: What are the players that should be in this place? What do they do? And what can we do to get them back? It may not ever go back to exactly how it used to be, but at least we can get the majority of the services that those things were providing to begin to function again.

‘For example, when it comes to river systems, in our part of the country, people are farming right into the river, but we know that the vegetation on the riverbank area is important for flood control. So, can we speak to communities and help them understand why we need to have plants like grasses and bamboo growing in the river to protect it? It's about replanting those places. We know that when these things have been removed, we've lost insects and invertebrates and maybe birds and small animals. We don't know whether they will come back, but at least if we put some vegetation on that river system it will help it work better than it does at the moment.’

Becoming a plastics activist and a Tearfund partner

Dr Tiwonge has been helping to take the hope for restoration of ecosystems to a national and global stage. It’s part of how she became an activist for plastics – which is a story she says she loves to tell. ‘I remember it very clearly,’ she says, ‘it was February 2018, I attended a conference in South Africa. I was already an activist for issues of biodiversity and conservation but I had never really said much to do with plastics. I think I did not understand a lot of the issues. At that conference there was a lady from the Anglican Church in South Africa and she gave an excellent presentation about the issue of plastic and I remember thinking “Wow! Okay? How come in my country I haven’t heard as much about this?”

‘It was sheer chance that I had ended up at this conference, but there I also met two or three other people from Malawi who had come from Tearfund and another two who were Green Anglicans, and this is when the Malawi Creation Care Network was born.

‘So, we went back and started researching what was happening with plastics and found out there was a bill in court that the government had come up with around regulations for thin plastics in particular, and it was sitting in court because there was an injunction. We started working together with the other NGOs who had already been doing something about it. Five years later we are still fighting, but for me it was the moment I realised that this is an important thing and we must do something about it – and if I can play any role in that something, it’s important that I am part of it!’

‘I realised that we must do something about it [plastic pollution] – and if I can play any role in that something, it’s important that I am part of it! ’
Dr Tiwonge Gawa, Ecologist

Dr Tiwonge and the plastics treaty

‘A recent report from Tearfund talks about 218 million people being at risk from flooding because of plastic waste. That statistic sticks in my mind because of the recent flooding that happened in Malawi. Bringing things closer to home, with things like flooding and the effects on human health because of burning – those are the things about plastics that touch my heart and make me want people to understand that it’s an important issue and we should all be doing something about it!’

Dr Tiwonge will be attending the next round of talks toward the global plastics treaty with Tearfund. Talking about that, she says, ‘What we all want [from INC-3] is progress to getting some agreements down. It can be difficult to agree on things when there are a lot of players at the table, but I am excited to support the issues that Tearfund is pushing for – especially with the rights of waste pickers.

‘And that was new for me. I thought about Malawi and that we also have waste pickers, but I’ve never thought about the people doing that job before. What happens to the people who take and sort through my waste? What kind of conditions do they have? What income do they receive?

‘So, I think those are important issues that should be taken into account, and for a country like Malawi, it helps us when they are done at a global level because whereas it would be difficult for us to start addressing an issue like this from scratch, when these kinds of global treaties are in place, then our advocacy can be to ensure that our country signs up and implements them – which is a much easier approach!’

Hope for humanity and faith in God to change people

‘We have to remain hopeful!’ says Dr Tiwonge. ‘It would be sad for us to say “Oh, we have completely lost.” I have faith in people and in what God can do to change people. As people understand these connections more and that everything we do comes back to us (and so we must care about what we are doing!) – then we start to see progress. We have a lot to do, but we also have a lot of opportunity, especially the younger generation.

‘I think we all have a role to play – especially to speak up. For example, when I use public transport and someone is about to throw a bottle out the window, I take it from them and put it in my bag and say, “No, don’t throw it outside. I’ll go and throw it in the bin at home.” Already, that is a message. I tell people, “It's important that we can love our country!”.’

Occasionally, people argue back but, Dr Tiwonge says, ‘you also find people go “Thank you for telling me. I didn't think of that.” And next time they go to do it, they will remember. Each one of us who knows the story and who has decided to do things differently, needs to tell others. Many of them don't change, but I don't want to believe that they won’t – we can't let ourselves believe that they won’t. So, we continue to share the right way of doing things. I think that’s everybody’s responsibility.’

Dr Tiwonge will be attending the INC-3 talks in Kenya this November with Tearfund.

Written by

Written by  Tarryn Pegna

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