Abuja, Nigeria: Nicholas Patrick Wiseman, back in 1845, once wrote that an idea is immortal and cannot be killed.
Personally, I think ideas are pretty much eternal. All the greatest changes in human lives across the world had at one time or another stemmed from an idea. From the concept of slavery to that of liberty; from feminism to democracy as we know it (to mention but a few), ideas time and time again have birthed revolutions throughout the ages.
Where it’s possible, the one other thing that could be greater than an idea or a concept is the idea’s own narrative. The narrative lays the frame work for its communication and dissemination; and this in turn determines how long the idea would live or die. The seed of an idea, regardless of how terrible, can germinate and thrive when properly disseminated by a good narrative (consider for a moment the spread of Nazism). On the other hand, an idea however noble, may never spread as wide when its message isn’t communicated properly.
A clear communication of an idea to the greatest number of people possible ensures its longevity. Let us consider for a moment, the concept of the LGBTQ movement. There is a very short list of subjects more ‘disturbing’ to the average African than the subject of Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer rights. This is not to say that at the onset of the LGBTQ movement, there were no lesbians or gays in Africa. There were. There still are, but that was not the point.
The concept was so fundamentally forbidden that it became non-existent, and the people directly involved might as well have been invisible. In most parts of the continent, they still are. However, as previously noted (in this article), in the last few years this position has gradually softened. Do you know why? The LGBTQ rights movement expanded their narrative. They opened their coffers to anyone who felt “different and left out” and grew like wildfire.
By the time it got to Africa, their narrative had expanded to include basically anyone who had failed to fit into the rest of society and was being victimized for it. From young boys who were straight but wanted to wear dresses to girls who looked like boys but were not lesbians, the message of the movement brought solace to many. In so doing, the LGBTQ movement amassed its global status, ceased to be just another Western concept, and expanded into a home with rooms for everyone.
As a Nigerian, it is easy to view the idea of environmentalism as a Western concept. While recognizing the need to protect the environment, it appeared to me, for many long years that the Westerners were too worried about things too mundane. Frankly, I regarded with a measure of amusement and intrigue, abstract subjects like the “Artic ice”, “polar caps” and “polar bears”. Why should I care about homeless polar bears in the ice when there isn’t enough shelter for the homeless families in my part of the world?'As a Nigerian, it is easy to view the idea of environmentalism as a Western concept. While recognizing the need to protect the environment, it appeared to me, for many long years that the Westerners were too worried about things too mundane...' Click To Tweet
In the past year though, I have found myself in the epicenter of the sustainability movement and my old viewpoint has undergone some changes. While I understand better now, the need for a more proactive approach to the protection of the environment, I am more convinced than ever that the narration of the idea of sustainability remains ‘Western’ by definition.
For starters, the decision to go sustainable seems to be a monumental one. This decision to throw away less food and offset the carbon footprint gained by flying across the world should be celebrated right? You can understand how these issues may sound amusing to Africans, most of whom are yet to fly in their lives. How do you convince someone to go “zero waste” when he or she already does not waste?'This decision to throw away less food and offset the carbon footprint gained by flying across the world should be celebrated right? You can understand how these issues may sound amusing to Africans, most of whom are yet to fly in their lives...'Click To Tweet
Closely related to these topics are the wrongs the Sustainable Living movement seeks to right. These issues revolve around fair-trade, ocean plastic and the increasing rate at which animals are becoming endangered. Now for most Africans, issues like fair-trade are difficult to grasp because, what Europeans label ‘low wages’ and ‘child labour’ often reflect differently through the lens of Africans. Why then should they care about plastic-eating fishes and endangered animals when even the fishes and meat are too luxurious for some of them to afford?
It is easier to share blame for this gap in communication between African eco-bloggers, Africans themselves and eco-friendly brands of the West. However, I believe it’s our responsibility within the Sustainability Movement to take these differences into consideration and expand the message of sustainable living in such a manner as to communicate it to Africans (and frankly, the billions of people residing in the developing world) more effectively. The issue of creating a more sustainable future, regardless of cultural and ideological differences, concerns everyone.
In my view, the first step towards achieving this will be to recognize the reality of the lives of Africans. To understand the motives behind their lifestyle choices. Recognizing this reality, the path to sustainability might then be broadened to include and encourage such African natural habits as the choice of families to pass down clothes from one sibling to another. Kids here would be more willing to return plastic in exchange for toys than to save fishes in an ocean they may never see. An African mother understands more the need for bulk buying better as a way to save resources than as an attempt to save the planet. Regardless of intent, all these are result in a more sustainable lifestyle.
Expanding the narrative of the sustainability movement and making it more inclusive has a plethora of benefits. High on the list is that a wider approach would help deliver the positive impacts of the movement to those who feel its scarcity the most. From droughts to floods, from desert encroachment to rising sea levels, African nations are feeling the pangs of climate change. From this, we can infer that Africa, more than any other people and in spite of ideological differences with the West, needs the positive impacts of sustainable practices.
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Beyond this potential for impact lies the even greater potential for learning. A majority of Africans, out of necessity, have been leading sustainable lifestyles long before such practices were dubbed ‘sustainable’. A ready example would be the practice of compost-making. When I was younger, many families could not afford fertilizers and making compost was the solution. There were massive compost dumps in schools from which we derived manure for our small gardens scattered around the school. All these were done in the normal cause of life and flowed from our upbringing. A more inclusive sustainable approach, therefore would afford many others the opportunity to learn first-hand, how to live sustainable lives on a wider scale. This will in turn help to scale sustainability and take it mainstream.'A majority of Africans, out of necessity, have been leading sustainable lifestyles long before such practices were dubbed ‘sustainable’. A ready example would be the practice of compost-making...'Click To Tweet
Most importantly though, the sustainability movement is not a sprint. It can be likened to a relay-race of sorts. The longevity of the movement therefore demands that this ‘baton’ be passed from an individual to a people, from one country to another, and from one generation to the next. Along with this passage should come the expansion in the narrative; to let the world know that there is room for everyone in the sustainability movement.
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