In this post, geography professor Sara Beth Keough of Saginaw Valley State University describes her work with West African graduate students in Niamey, Niger. During her time there as a Fulbright Scholar, she coached the students in planning and recording their stories about how climate change is impacting their hometowns. Listen to the students' stories here!
“Climate change” wasn’t my original teaching assignment. During the 2016-2017 academic year, I was a Fulbright Scholar in the West African country of Niger, sent to teach at the national university in the capital city of Niamey and continue my research on water vendors. I am a cultural geographer and I arrived in Niamey expecting a position in the university’s expansive Geography Department. You can imagine my reaction, then, when the US Embassy in Niger re-assigned me to the West African Science Service Center for the Study of Climate Change and Land Use (WASCAL), which offers a master’s degree in Climate Change and Energy. As a geographer, climate change has been an underlying theme in almost every course I have taught, but I felt a little out of place among a group of engineers, physicists, hydrologists, mathematicians, and computer scientists studying or teaching about the topic.
On the road to Boubon, a village in Western Niger, on market day.
Soon after my re-assignment, the WASCAL Director asked me to teach a graduate course called “Communicating Climate Change,” essentially a public speaking course with climate change as the focus. The goal was to build and hone students’ oral skills related to climate change topics to prepare them for the multitude of audiences to whom they might speak in their careers: NGOs with grant money, academic communities, government organizations, politicians controlling policy and practice, and young people who can change practices to improve the environment. Oral presentations are not a significant part of the West African university curriculum like they are in the U.S., especially in the natural sciences, and none of my students had ever delivered a public presentation prior to my class. My students were initially a bit intimidated by the act of public speaking, but they met the challenge head on and produced very engaging and dynamic work.
After receiving my new teaching assignment, my next step was to gather some resources. This proved to be challenging in a country where internet access is slow and inconsistent. I remember lamenting my access to resources on climate change (or lack thereof) in a phone conversation with my sister, and she put me in contact with Katie O’Reilly Morgan at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, NY, my hometown. Katie recommended I check out the Climate Stories Project website. The stories I read and listened to on the sight were compelling and passionate, but I noticed that no stories from the African continent, a place with some of the most vulnerable populations in the world, were available. I was inspired to add some.
A student in the Social Sciences at Abdou Moumouni University doing homework problems on one of several outdoor chalkboards.
It wasn’t just Climate Stories Project that inspired me, it was my students as well. I remember the day I met Shari, a male student from Nigeria. He had notice me park my car in the empty area across from the WASCAL building and had quickly come over, offering to carry my bag. I was flattered by this offer, but also a bit uncomfortable, as it is quite unusual in the US for students to help professors carry materials. Shari might have been the first to offer, but I found this level of hospitality come from all of my students. Lawali, a male student from Niger, always made sure the technology in the classroom was working. Fatoumata, a female student from Mali, was so patient with my French. In the US, I often have to work hard to put my students at ease, but in Niger, it was the other way around. I was the outsider, yet my students went out of their way to make me feel like I was a part of their program. It was through these casual interactions, and of course during my class, that I heard their personal stories about how climate change had affected their lives and those of their families, and what inspired each of them to pursue a graduate degree in climate change science.
My students’ stories add incredible diversity to an already impressive collection. The US climate change curriculum tends to emphasize the melting of polar ice caps/glaciers and sea level rise, among other effects of global warming. To my students, however, most of whom are from the Sahel region of West Africa (a mostly landlocked, semi-arid region at the edge of the Sahara Desert that gets limited seasonal rainfall), sea level rise is not a central concern. Furthermore, because the WASCAL program draws students from all over West Africa, I was able to collect stories from students from 4 different countries: two that are landlocked, two that are not. Although all the students who contributed stories to this project are all working on ways to promote sustainable energy development and reduce the impacts of climate change in their respective countries, the stories they share are all different, as the they were inspired by different circumstances and life experiences.
I am grateful to ALL of my WASCAL students, those who permitted me to submit their stories to the Climate Stories Project and also those that requested my confidentiality. They deepened my understanding of climate change and its effects by selflessly sharing their experiences. I commend them for dedicating their careers to improving conditions in West African countries.
Dr. Keough and her students at the WASCAL building at Abdou Moumouni University ,with special guests Malam Saguirou (Nigerien documentary filmmaker) and Halimatou Hima (Nigerien Doctoral Candidate at the University of Cambridge, UK).
“Your task as the young… is to reinvent the universe, the universe made out of stories — to change the stories, to tell them, to bury them, and to give birth to them. A difficult task, but not an impossible one.” – Rebecca Solnit
With the recent news of the US withdrawing from the Paris Accord, many young people are feeling overwhelmed and distraught. However, I wanted to speak to young people today and let them know that hope is not lost. In fact, now is the most important time to take action —and many young people like myself are doing so. To other inspire others, I want to share a few of my personal actions against the climate crisis. Two groups I am working are doing amazing work. My involvement with SustainUS is through their COP23 Creative Challenge, which gives young people (ages 18-25) the chance to become a youth delegate at the COP23 (Conference of Parties) in Bonn, Germany in November 2017. The Creative Challenge asks youth to submit artistic work, such as a painting, blog, or song that expresses their passion for climate justice. Through two rounds of competition, participants tell their personal story and emphasize the importance of taking action. This opportunity is amazing because it puts youth in the forefront of the climate movement and allows their voices to be heard on the world stage. For the Creative Challenge, I told my personal story about climate change through Climate Stories Project, and also submitted this poem:
Patient Name: Mother Earth I’m checking for Her vital signs and they are fading. A fact we’ve known for decades but still are waiting… Waiting for the forests to regrow. Waiting for the seas to retreat. Waiting for the carbon levels to slow. Waiting for water in this heat. Waiting and waiting and yet still debating- If we are the cause or if it’s just how the earth works. Let me ask you- Do you blame the victim of an assault? “She looked too appealing so it’s her fault” But I guess that’s not considered rape Even when you claim Her as your own landscape? Or should she be considered abused? If you take and take Until every single last resource is used But, if this goes unseen is the behavior excused? - - - - - - -- -- -- - -- - - - - - - So often we turn a blind eye to those who need us most. In Her case, like many, the case cannot be easily Diagnosed. The cure is a challenge. That will take years to perfect The cure is a battle. But for Her we shall fight to protect. For She was never or ever will be merely an object. The audio recording of my poem can be heard here. You can see all the submissions from the Creative Challenge here.
Another group I am working with is Earth Guardians. Starting this past April, I became a member of Earth Guardian’s RYSE Youth Council, which stands for Rising Youth for a Sustainable Earth. We are a group of 21 young environmental leaders in our local communities. We work together to support each other and promote national efforts to advance sustainability—a top priority is fostering new youth leaders for climate action. One way we are going to do this is through a summer training for which we will learn communication and leadership skills, which we will then put to use in our own communities. To make this happen, we are have a fundraising campaign which lasts until June 30th. We kindly ask for your support!
I sincerely hope that my experiences inspire other youth to take action against climate change. There are so many ways to get involved and make a difference. The future of our planet is in our hands!
This past Thanksgiving, I visited family in Western North Carolina. My grandmother’s home is in Saluda, a tiny town close to the South Carolina border and a little ways east of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles North Carolina and Tennessee. My great grandfather ran a camp in this area, and my dad and his brothers spent their summers there, exploring the green, wet Blue Ridge Mountains. I started traveling down alone to stay with my grandmother in the Saluda house when I was four, and her back porch, overlooking the mountains and some of the world’s greatest sunsets, remains one of my favorite places in the world.
For a good part of this visit, however, neither mountains nor sunset were visible. The smog extended to the trees lining my grandmother’s yard, about 100 feet in front of the porch. The air smelled half like a campfire and half like burning plastic, presumably from the manmade debris caught in over thirty wildfires that had been burning in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee for the past month. We first heard about them through a second cousin, a chef at a lodge that evacuated completely when the fire started pouring down the mountain directly across the lake. He also told us that much of Sevier County, Tennessee, childhood home of Dolly Parton and site of the amusement park Dollywood, had burned down.
What’s most worrying about these fires is that the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains area is a temperate rainforest – it’s known for being cool, damp and rainy even in the summer months. The fires followed two months without rain and a year of drought, as well as the third warmest October since 1963 and second warmest January-October period in the last 122 years, according to the NOAA. It’s believed that the majority of the fires were manmade – it can be easy for a hiker to drop a cigarette and start a huge blaze when conditions are this dry. The Sevier County fire, which was reportedly started by teenagers, killed fourteen people, injured 191, damaged or destroyed over two thousand structures and forced over 14,000 people to evacuate. The mayor of Gatlinburg referred to it as a “fire for the history books.”
Our area of North Carolina was not impacted as drastically, but the fires severely affected air quality. When the wind blew the smoke toward the house, the air smelled so toxic we had to keep all the windows closed. Each morning I coughed up globs of yellow gunk. We weren’t even in the towns closest to the large fires, where it must have been very difficult to breathe. Since we couldn’t be outside on several days, I took the opportunity to do some Climate Stories Project reporting and talk to friends about what was going on.
I interviewed Chris Price, a family friend, homestead farmer and naturalist, about his experience of the wildfires, as well as other ways he’s observing climate change in the area and on his farm. Listen to Chris’ story below. I also spoke with my friend Steven Norris, a climate justice organizer, who reminded me of what had been happening on the other side of the state – while western North Carolina was crying out for water, the eastern coast was being drenched by Hurricane Matthew. In addition to organizing to support for communities affected by Matthew, Steve is also organizing to stop a piece of natural gas infrastructure bound to exacerbate climate catastrophes like these ones – the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Steve recently helped organize the Walk to Protect Our People and the places We Live, a along the proposed route of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. I’ll be posting his interview soon, including a reflection on that experience.
Chris Price, Mill Spring, North Carolina - SoundCloud (251 secs long, 1 plays)Play in SoundCloud
Update: The Southern Appalachian wildfires aren’t the only ones wreaking destruction around the world this year. Read here about the wildfires currently afflicting Chile.
Since I began collecting climate stories, I’ve started to notice them everywhere I go. I visited family in England this past Christmas and got to travel to parts of the country I'd never seen before. In each region we visited, we heard climate stories.
When my uncle returned from visiting friends in Sussex, southern England for New Year's, he reported that they have decided to turn their property into a champagne vineyard after learning that the region’s climate has become similar to that of Champagne, France two hundred years ago.
My mother and I visited my great aunt and uncle in Sheffield, in the north, and got into a conversation about the winter weather. My great aunt mentioned that it wasn’t nearly what it used to be – several decades ago, they’d spend the winters shoveling piles of snow. The past few winters, there have been infrequent sprinklings of snow, never enough to shovel.
We headed further north to the Lake District to visit my cousin's girlfriend's family for the first time, and they told us that severe floods last year destroyed a bridge that had just celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Toward the end of our trip, I went to see a friend in Cambridge, and he fondly recollected ice skating as a child on the area’s fens, or marshes, which used to freeze through each winter. Now, he said, they’re no longer frozen consistently enough for kids to skate safely.
Below is a map of England, with pins placed on the areas mentioned. I am always surprised by the diversity of ways climate change appears in different places. The more I do this work, the more I see that climate change is showing up everywhere.
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