Nigerian youth adopt eco-justice for urban neighborhoods

December 5, 2012

LAGOS, Nigeria

A sense of eco-justice is arriving, step-by-step, in urban Lagos, Nigeria. The story of Njideka Onwunyi shows how one young woman can galvanize a growing response.

When Njideka Onwunyi talks about the effects of flooding in urban Lagos, her young peers nod their heads in understanding. They know all too well the realities of the cycle: the regular flooding causes contaminated water that has led to chronic and extreme drinking water shortages for the poorest neighborhoods in Lagos.

In fact, all of Nigeria has experienced extreme flooding in recent years, a condition most experts attribute to climate change.

Onwunyi decided to start in her own home city. First, she got her peers to talk about eco-justice. Then, she inspired them to improve sanitation and water, little by little, in an effort that is a growing positive force within the city.

After attending Youth for Eco-Justice (Y4EJ), a 2011 program organized jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation, Onwunyi was determined to take her passion for the earth back home.

Nigeria, home to 120 million people, faces ecological challenges related to deforestation, urbanization and pollution. The country also contains the largest wetland and the third-largest drainage basin in Africa.

Onwunyi began a group called Youth for Eco-Justice Nigeria and developed a three-step Eco-Justice Education/Awareness Project.

First, she planned a two-day workshop for 30 youth members of Our Lady of Fatima and St Augustine Catholic churches, as well as St Bartholomew Anglican Church. The workshop was presented as part of a “Youth Week” with the theme “Blossoming to Save the Earth! What’s Your Stand?”

In addition to speakers from the faith community, presenters also included representatives from Lagos State Waste Management Authority and Urban and Regional Planning Authority.

Second, Onwunyi produced 30 copies of an eight-page booklet entitled “Eco-justice ―  Our Role as Young Christians in Preserving the Environment.” The publication features case studies from Nigeria on eco-justice, along with theological references.

The majority of Onwunyi's audience was just beginning to understand the concept of eco-justice. That's why she chose to focus her program on true-to-life descriptions of Lagos to demonstrate how eco-justice is relevant within Nigeria's daily life.

“I centered more on issues of climate and water justice based on my work knowledge and experience, and then followed up with case studies of climate change as it affects us here in urban Lagos with flooding and excessive heat,” she explained.

Onwunyi found that her workshop sessions were highly interactive as young people asked questions to help them understand the eco-justice movement. They were more than ready to talk about how climate change affected their own lives.

The practical results of Onwunyi's efforts are just beginning to show. Several young people in Lagos have started water and sanitation projects that will alleviate, little by little, the root causes of the water shortages for urban neighborhoods.

As she continues to plan workshops and actively communicate with her peers, Onwunyi still considers her Y4EJ training as the landmark experience that both educated and inspired her. “I got to see and understand in a broader view the eco-justice concept, and the best part was getting to see how active the faith community is in advocating for justice,” she said. “This experience sparked off my desire to do more back home.”

In implementing her project, Onwunyi met some serious challenges head-on. “Some young people were not too optimistic about joining the eco-justice advocacy, citing that there was no material benefit,” said Onwunyi. “A major reason for this is the high unemployment rate (70 percent) among youth and the high rate of poverty in the country.”

But Onwunyi is gradually helping her peers see the relevancy of eco-justice to their daily lives. “In the end, the participants were very eager to learn.”

Susan Kim is a freelance writer from Laurel, Md. This article is part of a series that provides information about the follow-up initiatives of the Youth for Eco-Justice participants.

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