Ibrahim Ceesay is a Gambian social justice activist and Chairperson of the Board of the African Youth Initiative on Climate Change, a continent-wide youth platform with 45 country chapters and over 20,000 members. Ceesay, who is 31 years old, already has an impressive CV that includes a stint as a UNESCO Youth Focal Point in his home country of The Gambia, and has participated in a number of the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties annual meetings (COPs). I met up with Ibrahim in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia at the Sixth Climate Change and Development in Africa Conference (CCDA-VI) in October 2016, for this conversation on climate change. He had recently returned from the second African Youth Conference on Climate Change in Nairobi, Kenya, which focused on how to make climate finance work for young people. Throughout our meeting, Ibrahim stressed the need for more resources for youth-based groups working on climate change, so that they can move from advocacy activities, attending meetings, to doing the real work on the ground.
Penny: What concerns you the most about climate change – what are your hopes and fears?
Ibrahim: I am most concerned about the impacts on youth, which play out in three ways: firstly, youth and migration – a lot of young people have moved to the city or migrated out of The Gambia, looking for jobs and opportunities, and many of them have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. Secondly, the impacts of climate change on their livelihoods – when they lose these, they become victims of circumstances and may become involved in illegal activities – but also, if you look at the northern part of Nigeria, partly because of the impact of climate change, a lot of young people are now members of Boko Haram. Thirdly, agriculture – as you know, 75% of African rural youths are involved in agriculture, but are increasingly leaving this due to the stresses of climate change. So young people need to look at how they can take advantage of climate change to develop, but right now, they are seeing it as a threat, and they are running away from it. What we are trying to do is to tell them, ‘look here guys, you can use the opportunities that climate change presents to develop, in terms of the blue and the green economies’.
Penny: On agriculture, one often hears the narrative that the youth are not interested in this anymore – how would you respond to that, especially in connection to climate change?
Ibrahim: I would admit that is true – with the current status quo of agricultural development in Africa, young people are not interested. Agriculture has to be repackaged: we need to address agriculture from the food security view, and give young people the opportunities for them to venture into it as a business. But this will require a lot of incentives. Many of our members are involved in agriculture but have a problem with access to land, especially for young women. Then, even if you have access to land, you do not have loans and finance to start farming. Those who have some money do not have the capacity in terms of training and technology. So you can see there is a whole scenario, and what we need to circumvent that is for governments to come up with national youth policies on agriculture, that mainstream climate change and employment. Agribusiness presents a lot of opportunities. We are trying to train our members that you can plug into the various value chains, you do not necessarily have to go into agricultural production, to the farm. You can plug into the processing, marketing, other parts of the value chain.
Penny: How did you get involved in climate change?
Ibrahim: It all started with the Boy Scouts, when I was at school in Nigeria, where my father was doing business. One of the Scouts’ rules is you have to be a friend of the environment, and of animals. So I became aware of the environment, and wanted to protect it, so I got involved in planting trees and greening.
Penny: Did you have any moments of personal realisation in this process that really stand out for you?
Ibrahim: Yes, when I was in Junior School at Igbobi College, an all-boys school in Lagos, we had a tree that served as a windbreak and a canopy where we would go and eat during breaks and hang out, but one day when we returned to school it was gone. They cut down the tree to build a shop. We realised that tree was so important to us as a meeting place. I asked myself why were they cutting down trees, and it hit me that we should be planting more trees, and making schools more green. So, with the Boy Scouts, we launched the Green Schools Initiative, started planting more trees in our school and encouraging our peers. We started tree planting at school, in the mosque, at home, in the streets, wherever we could.
Penny: I hadn’t realised that the Scouts was so involved in greening.
Ibrahim: Oh yes, if you look at some of the most successful and consistent examples of climate change campaigners, their history was with the Scouts, that was where they started. You know in the Scouts we have a motto that says always ‘be prepared’, and that has shaped me. Whenever you call on me, I will always be prepared for the climate and the planet.
Penny: It can be hard to work in this field, sometimes – the environmental degradation, the way it impacts on people, and we keep reading more and more studies that show how serious the climate change situation is. (Ibrahim assents.) So is there something that you use to comfort you and to make meaning – is there anything like that for you?
Ibrahim: Yes, and that for me is the arts – I remember when I was at COP-15, the Copenhagen climate change conference in 2009, and the negotiations got very tough, we used to have ‘Fossil of the Day’ award organised by Climate Action Network. During this I used to sing and recite poems, I would say ‘guys don’t take it so serious, we shall overcome’, like performance art. Also, I helped organise flash dance in the COP – sometimes we were kicked out. (We laugh.) So I realised that the arts can be a strong tool for communication, but also a tool to help us re-think processes, calm us down, and kind-of re-engage us back to the process. Then when I left the COP, I launched a project called African Artists Unite for Climate Justice – we got famous musicians from different parts of Africa to join the campaign, and today we have about eight musicians who talk about climate change in their music.
Penny: So you are saying that you use the arts as a way to communicate, but also as a way to uplift people’s spirits? And your own, is that right?
Ibrahim: Yes, because sometimes the climate change negotiations are very technical, there are some words I cannot say, but through the arts I can talk about them. There is a line I wrote that says, “If we don’t scale up the funds for adaptation, and promote mitigation and mainstream it at all levels, there’s going to be waves and waves of migration. Tsunami will come again, typhoon will come again, and our generation is alive generation, so we are going to stand up and fight for a place in the future. It’s not just about you, it’s not just about me, it’s not just about the polar bears, it’s about us, its about love, its about our future, it’s about our now.” I couldn’t say that in a normal meeting, but I could put it into a poem and talk about it and people could relate. So normally when I get opportunities to speak, I start with poetry and I get the attention of everybody, and I also relax myself.
Penny: That’s wonderful, I feel the same way about using poetry. It feeds you, and it enables you to carry on.
Ibrahim: Exactly. It’s important to keep our spirits up. Africa has a youthful population and young people are the powerhouse of every nation. They need to be the key implementers of the Paris Agreement, so countries must involve them in delegations to UNFCCC meetings, mentor them and also give them the opportunity to share their ideas, their energy and their dynamism.