The 13th in particular, emerged as an action or a challenge to, what we call the three tenets of the 13th framework, which is internationalism, acknowledging colonial legacies and active solidarity. And within this is an understanding of how everything is interconnected and interdependent when we see and understand social justice issues. The 13th Highlights the interconnectedness of climate, racial justice and universalized oppressions rooted in colonialism. Therefore the question asked to Irene Usua is how the 13th relates to their activism and work as academics and social and racial justice advocates in their own communities in Kenya?
My name is Irene. As a social scientist, I am very passionate about ecological issues so I co-convened a collective community group in Nairobi. We mobilize and organize communities through reclaiming spaces that have been grabbed or are heavily polluted. We rehabilitate and transform them into spaces that people can use, or adapted where nature can have a chance to heal. These spaces are either riparian lands, community grounds or any other space that we can get, which is also very highly dependent on how the land Kenya oversees this. Land is a really big and emotive issue and also very lethal as well in this part of the country.
This is to stand in the gap of history that has been erased and is slowly being erased even at the moment in school, in the school curriculum. So we are trying to create spaces where people can access literature that is not out in the public or they can’t find at school. So next month we are doing a book club for those resource centers, but also just to create spaces where people can come and create and have discussions and just hang out, because such spaces are really rare. The ones that exist, we call them “base” which are like along the road or in the market or wherever they are, which is also where young people get profiled, so dangerous.
So the resource centers are also to create a safe space where people can access the internet and just do things without being profiled by police. So yeah, that’s what I do. And I also support outreach at the Ukombozi library, which is in Nairobi as well. Ukombozi library puts together literature that is not easily accessible, such as Kenyan struggles, African struggles, struggles with people of African descent outside the continent and many other struggles. So we work with communities to access this literature, to screen films and to support Ukombozi forums. Ukombozi means liberation, support dialogue within the communities. “
How is colonialism related to work on climate justice in Kenya?
“Kenya is a settler colony. So what that means is that colonisers who are here, or who are still living, feel entitled to most of what they call land, so they feel entitled to all of it. Some of the best lands in Kenya, as per neo-liberal standards, land which has what they consider “the fertile soil”, the ones that have high yields, the ones that have the best terrain, they are not even owned by the richest Kenyans yet because after the paper, or what you call “flag independence”, the core of Kenya struggle for independence has been for land and freedom. So that’s just a glare of the ecological crisis for Kenya and for many settler colonies in Africa, which have not been divorced from colonialism.
The ecological crisis you’re seeing right now, in many parts of Africa, is largely a colonial legacy. So it is, decades of deforestation in Mount Kirinyaga. It is decades and decades and continuing genocide of removing people from range lands under the guise of conservation. Removing and evicting people from forest and concentrating people in the cities. Those evictions create squatters and local refugees. Even if you are a citizen you are a refugee in your own country because you keep being evicted from one place to another. You settle with another community and that community gets evicted. And that continues. At the moment there are many ethnic communities that do not exist anymore, they’ve been cleansed as a result of that. Lumping people together is called “kanji”. As a result people have had to join dominant communities as a survival tactic, people lose their identity completely, which is another form of genocide if you ask me.
If you look at our laws as much as we have a new constitution that was inaugurated in 2010, Kenya brags about a very vibrant legal and policy framework at home at UNESCO and all these other high level meetings, our colonial laws are very punitive. It still criminalizes indigenous farmers which are at the mercy of corporations. Small and medium term farmers have to depend on aggravates for seeds for farm inputs or fertilizers which are red listed in the European market. They have poisoned our food and the water sources. “
‘There is no process to engage and prevent the extraction and violence. A lot of people have lost their homes. What is currently happening in Lamu with the proposed compliance, the lab set and all the mining, basically in all remote areas. There is a possibility of one or more mining corporations taking advantage of the fact that it is a remote area. People don’t understand due process so they can come overnight and do whatever they want. There are instances where people sleep in the night they wake up and realize someone was mining below their home! When you’re sleeping, you wake up, you’re coughing. Your lungs are hurting and you wonder why?, when you go outside you realize there was a corporation that was mining overnight. So the mining and extractives sector has done so much harm and is still doing so much damage.‘
Then there is of course the continued alienation of people from natural resources which was colonial as well. In into Sumo, there’s only one access point to the NIC right now. All other access points either have private resorts, or these are ruled out for a port, which random people are not allowed to go to. So it’s exclusive to a specific class of people. Whenever, let’s say an animal or a human being falls into a dam, government rushes very fast to fence it and drive people away under the guise of creating security so that someone doesn’t fall in there again, and stuff like that, but it’s just a tactic to kick people out of that land.
In Mombasa people have been harassed on the beach. The last time I was there last year around in November there are places where at 6 pm you need to be out. There are also neighborhoods in Nairobi where I can’t go because I’ll be asked so many questions. The last time I was in one of them with a friend, we were interrogating someone as if we were suspects of a crime. Yet this is Nairobi. It is a public road. But because we looked like we were not supposed to be there. We were questioned. It was like 30 minutes of question after question after question. What are you doing? Why did you think about coming here? Can you imagine being asked to go to your country? It’s so ridiculous. Like what kind of question is that? It’s like walking on the streets and then someone asks you, “Okay, so why did you decide to walk on the street today?”
The last thing is the accessibility of green spaces. In Nairobi, I think almost all of them are gone with a very small percentage remaining. So the National Park has a very small percentage remaining. Karura forest also has a very small percentage remaining and city park, it is safe to say that it is gone because they are fencing it. Actually in Karura we are contesting a proposition to have people book an appointment like make a reservation. Like it’s so ridiculous. If you make a reservation to access I feel like you have to see on Friday, we are coming to Karuna then the management and say no. Please pick another date. These are examples of environmental apartheid that’s going on and those are some techniques that I used.
What would you suggest, in a space such as this, how we see the legacies of colonization and how we move forward beyond?
Have conversations such as these, but as we do them, we do not deliberately erase lived realities. They would say, there is no data, it is not real, to dismiss the lived realities. I have been to embassies in the country, and it’s apalling to see they are supporting the government.
For us Afrikan voices, the climate emergency is not something to predict, it is a lived reality that we have been experiencing for a while.
Amplify the work of African organizing, without depoliticising the message or the lived experience. Provide enough time for us to reflect and share our experiences without censoring our voices. Gives us time to explain our conditions and how we got there, around the political and economic environments. We are not making things up. No one would make such sad realities up.
The solidarity we look for is different from what NGOs do. Because they put you on a pedestal, and there are things you can’t say, or support they can ‘t give. But if people are organizing around many forms of harm and the priorities change and for example I can’t use the money to bail people out of jail, then it is not useful.
The support given should reflect the lived realities from people, and recognise and appreciate the environment we are operating in and be as flexible as possible. The support recognises the interconnection of the climate crisis with the socio economic crisis because, for example, we can’t expect communities that live in the urban areas to quickly embrace conservation when they have never seen a park, and lived in concrete areas, while they worry about when they are going to eat next or when they are going to catch a bullet, is a long shot. For some of the groups I have worked with it has taken over a year. It is not their fault, even the schools they went to are concrete jungles, they are teenagers that for the first time see green spaces.