Voices of Faith in Kenya raise the alarm for environmental protection

Related story - Q & A with Sr. Mary Francis Wangare, reconciling Christians and Muslims in Kenya

Nairobi, Kenya — When Pope Francis released "Laudato Si’, On Care for Our Common Home," the title of the encyclical emphasized a shared responsibility to protect the earth. Everyone is responsible, Pope Francis said, from the richest countries to the poorest, the biggest corporations to the person cooking for their family in a one-room hut, from the one billion Catholics in the world to Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists  and atheists.

Franciscan Sr. Mary Francis Wangare was already preaching this concept as director of the Office of Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Franciscan Africa. Among her projects: the first interfaith environmental conference for Kenyan youth in 2014.

Then, in April 2015, Kenya suffered a tragic example of religious strife when radical extremists associated with Al Shabab killed 147 Christian students at Garissa University. Wangare lost her 20-year-old niece in the terrorist attack.

For Wangare, the tragedy underscored why interfaith work is so essential to try to heal some of the wounds between Christian and Muslim young people. She worked with Kenya Interfaith Network on Environmental Action, Global One Muslim Women’s Organization, 350.org and other local organizations to bring the second annual event to life.

The environment is a neutral subject, Wangare explained. Everyone knows we must take action, so it is the perfect rallying point for interfaith work. “We are from all different faiths, but we want to show that if we work together, we can stop the radicalization of young people,” she told more than 600 participants at Catholic University on Oct. 9 as she opened the two-day conference.

Global Sisters Report attended the conference and spoke to a number of leaders and participants about the importance of cooperation across religions when it comes to protecting the only planet we have.

Martin Muindi, a 23-year-old Muslim conference participant who is self-employed selling household utensils:

I am here to interact with my fellow Christians and bring a peaceful coexistence between the two religions. I want to live in peace and be in peace with everyone, regardless of race, religion or color. We are all human beings regardless of tribe.

When we talk about the environment, planting trees will make our country look gorgeous. It will also get rid of the aridity in the area and safeguard the water catchment areas to feed the springs in the Ngong Hills [a lush area of small mountains 20 kilometers outside of Nairobi].

Uwe Wissenbach, head of the Political Section for the European Union in Kenya and keynote speaker at the conference:

The E.U. is working hard on climate change, including at the upcoming Paris Conference. We want to force countries to reduce emissions. Our main objective is legally binding agreements to reduce emissions. We must keep global warming below a two-degree increase.

Interfaith efforts are important, because especially as we have seen in recent months with horrible attacks by Al Shabab, they want to divide Kenyans. They are trying to whip up religious tensions with the goal of dividing society. This is the best thing against subversive activities: When you have an objective like protecting the environment, it takes them away from radicalization. If you give young people a purpose to get to know each other and plant trees together, it creates an effective barrier against radicalization.

Najat Abdi, country director of Global One, a development organization for Muslim women:

The environment is in our hearts. Whenever we do agricultural projects, we always use organic pesticides and fertilizers and plant trees. People know about the scientific facts of environmentalism. But faith is their belief, it is the ethical part of environmentalism. What does your faith say about the environment? What does your Bible or Quran say? If you link it to that, people take it into their hearts and it’s more effective. It’s our responsibility.

With Garissa University, the attackers planned for there to be tension and division between the religious groups, but now the tension is gone. That was not faith, this is people using the name of Islam. Some Christians are scared, but our community members came out and said ‘this is not us, we have lived together for so long. This came from outside.’ Which is why we must work together on environmental issues. This is our home, and if we don’t take care of our home, no one else will.

Dr. Dorcas B. Otieno, executive director of Kenya Organization for Environmental Education and former chairperson of the Kenyan government’s National Environmental Management Association:

What I want to tell the young people here today is that white-collar jobs are no longer available. Young people need to start looking for green-collar jobs: jobs dealing with environmental conservation, environmental management and climate change. Communities must adapt different and new technologies. The creation of new technologies creates new opportunities for knowledge and therefore employment. I’m talking about jobs associated with solar, biogas or alternative types of energy; infrastructure or transportation, like encouraging the use of bicycles; green buildings and architects that can design them; water-saving and water-harvesting technology, smart irrigation or waste water conversion to fertilizers.

This new type of knowledge needs to be taught in our schools. Our job is to mainstream faith-based values into environmental policies, in schools and in the government. We have found that faith is a very strategic platform to reach many people. Under normal circumstances, it’s hard to mobilize the number of people who were here today [about 600] for the environment. We were writing curriculums for schools about environmentalism and thought we’d have to write a separate curriculum for each faith. But then we realized the values from all of the other faiths are really the same, which is how we really started working together.

Fr. Charles Odira, national executive secretary of Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops and chairperson of Kenya Interfaith Network for Action on the Environment:

This forum is very important for the young people in the country, because they begin to work together, not just as Kenyans, but also from different faith perspectives. It is an opportunity for the young people to share things of common value like environment and development. These things can bring them together rather than divide them. It also gives young people an opportunity to interact with religious leaders, the U.N., the European Union and other stakeholders who are involved in development and sustainable goals.

Sr. Stephanie Nthenya, a second-year novice, Assumption Sisters of Nairobi:

I am so glad that I came because I was really enlightened about how climate change is affecting our world, specifically carbon emissions. I already knew about carbon because the pope is calling upon each individual to come up with ways on how to deal with this issue of emissions. But at the conference, I learned why we need to advise the young people to take care of the environment. Protecting the environment begins with us. We are the ones on the ground; our leaders are not doing enough.

[Melanie Lidman is the Middle East and Africa correspondent for Global Sisters Report. Michelle Njeri is a member of the Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Nairobi, Kenya, and a final-year student in Social Communication at Tangaza University College (Catholic University Of Eastern Africa).]