Image for The climate cafe helping eco-anxious Africans find hope amid the heat

The climate cafe helping eco-anxious Africans find hope amid the heat

Sharp increases in heat and flooding have found Nigeria at the forefront of the climate crisis – and yet only three in 10 Nigerians have heard of it. Youth activist Jennifer Uchendu is on a mission to change that, one conversation at a time 

Sharp increases in heat and flooding have found Nigeria at the forefront of the climate crisis – and yet only three in 10 Nigerians have heard of it. Youth activist Jennifer Uchendu is on a mission to change that, one conversation at a time 

Akindipe Akinjisola, a 29-year-old banker, lives in Wawa on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria’s bustling economic centre. 

He moved here to avoid the city centre’s rents, which have soared by an average of 91% in the past five years due to rapid urbanisation. But every year during the rainy season, Akinjisola (pictured above) is forced to move back to the city for refuge.  

Wawa has no proper drainage system, and when heavy rain falls – as it often does between March and October – the neighbourhood floods prompt wide-scale evacuation. In recent years, the rains have only got heavier – 2022 recorded some of the country’s worst flooding on record, in which more than a million Nigerians were displaced and 800 killed. 

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“In Wawa, people lose their homes, the houses they’ve built. For me, just because it is the rainy season, fear starts coming,” Akinjisola tells Positive News. He’s speaking in January at the launch of the country’s first climate cafe. After hearing about it in a WhatsApp group, and in search of safe space to discuss his feelings, he decided to pay the cafe a visit. 

More than a dozen people are gathered at the office of SustyVibes, an NGO founded by 31-year-old Nigerian activist Jennifer Uchendu, that is on a mission to make sustainability cool and relatable in Africa. Long tables are adorned with pots of flowers, ready for the grand opening of the climate cafe – which is one strand of its new initiative, The Eco-Anxiety Africa Project (TEAP). A wide smile on the face of project manager Ayomide Olude welcomes everyone into the space. “It is so good to know I am not the only one feeling these emotions and there are others who feel the way I feel,” she says. 

The climate cafe is one of just a few across the continent – the first emerged in east Africa in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and more have popped up recently in Nigeria’s west African neighbour Benin. In Nigeria, where discussion of eco-anxiety is even rarer than that of the climate crisis, TEAP and its cafe are stepping into the vacuum at the intersection of climate and mental health in Africa. 

The climate cafe helping eco-anxious Africans find hope amid the heat

Ayomide Olude, project manager at The Eco Anxiety Project, in Lagos. Image: Taiwo Aina

According to a 2022 survey by Afrobarometer, only three in 10 Nigerians had heard of the climate crisis, even though most recognise that weather conditions have become harsher to the point of making their environment – at times – uninhabitable. 

Just like in the northern hemisphere, where environmentalists have warned that eco-anxiety is an overwhelmingly white privileged phenomenon, the climate crisis is often seen through a class prism in Nigeria.  Worrying about it is seen as a luxury only available to the middle and upper classes – poorer citizens have even more pressing concerns. 

For years, Nigeria has been in the throes of rising inflation, which currently stands at 28.92%. The price of staple foodstuffs has soared. In the year to November 2023, for example, the cost of a bag of rice increased by 73.2%. 

That’s what really drives me – the impact that can happen when someone is inspired and begins to make change

“An average poor man in Nigeria will not tell you he is concerned about climate change. He will tell you he is concerned about the rising price of food in the market and the fact that there is no electricity,” says Seyifunmi Adebote, a Nigerian environmental expert and host of the Climate Talk Podcast.                     

But this does not deter Uchendu and her team. 

“There is a narrative in Africa that issues around climate change are not something the average person is interested in,” said Uchendu. “But when you look at the impacts of climate change, the people it affects most intensely are poor people.” 

climate cafe

Attendees finding strength in solidarity at the launch of Nigeria’s first climate cafe. Image: Taiwo Aina

One problem she has identified is that there is a lack of words for climate change in the local Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa languages. 

“When people start to talk about climate change, it can seem a bit elite because we are speaking in English rather than local languages,” she says. “Because of this, it can be easy to think that it’s not something that concerns the average person. That’s where our work comes in.” 

These days, Uchendu is one of Nigeria’s most prominent voices on the climate crisis, having worked with the Nigerian government to put in place a national recycling bill, spoken at Cop28 and been elected a prestigious Ashoka Fellow. She is now living in the Netherlands, while she does a research fellowship in to eco-anxiety at the university of Utrecht. But her journey began as a child experiencing asthma triggered by air pollution. Struggling to breathe helped attune her to the changing environment around her.  

It is so good to know I am not the only one feeling these emotions and there are others who feel the way I feel

She took a master’s degree in Development Studies at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK. She classes as a lightbulb moment realising that her experience of eco-anxiety was very different to those of her English peers. In the UK, it seemed to usually come in the form of guilt. But she felt it as anger at the injustice of Africans experiencing some of the worst impacts of a climate crisis that they’ve played relatively little part in causing. 

The concept of eco-anxiety remains nascent in Africa, where the conversation is mostly framed around governmental failures to build critical infrastructure that would mitigate the impacts of climate change.   

Through her work at SustyVibes, Uchendu wants to create a community of young people who can come together to connect and design new ways of living. As she puts it: “For ourselves, our planet and the world at large.” 

climate cafe

Jennifer Uchendu, youth activist and founder of SustyVibes. Image: SustyVibes

Back at the cafe, the conversation is flowing in the late afternoon sun. Hope Lekwa – the head of research at SustyVibes – explains that many Nigerians don’t yet acknowledge a connection between their mental wellbeing and their increasingly changing climate. The project wants to “bring those emotions to the forefront and have discussions about them,” Lekwa says, “because most Africans in general are used to shutting down their emotions”. 

This approach – acknowledging that people in countries like Nigeria may not discuss their anxiety in these terms, but that this doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t present – is backed up by research. In a global survey of 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 – in 10 countries from India to Nigeria and Brazil – with results being published in the Lancet, more than 45% said their feelings about the climate crisis negatively impacted their ability to function on a daily basis, including eating, sleeping and studying.  

SustyVibes works across the breadth of Nigerian society, from its Sustyschools project, a climate outreach that is targeted at secondary schools, to Susty on the Streets, which involves street clean-ups and kerbside advocacy. It also hosts training sessions for African mental health professionals, exploring the link between the climate crisis and mental wellbeing, and offers free climate-aware psychotherapy to members of the SustyVibes community. 

Hope Lekwa, head of research and communications at SustyVibes. Image: Taiwo Aina

Its current partnership with the University of Nottingham investigates how exposure to the impacts of the climate crisis impacts the mental health of people living in west African cities including Banjul, Freetown, Monrovia, Accra and Lagos. It has revealed that young Africans are acutely aware of the changes in climate they’re witnessing – and its impact on their lives.  

“The more young people we can get involved in this conversation, the more we can push this movement forwards,” said Uchendu. “That’s what really drives me – the impact that can happen when someone is inspired by the work and begins to make change in their own neighbourhood. I want to light many candles so we have literally a galaxy of stars across the continent – young people doing campaigns and shifting the way we think about sustainability in Africa.” 

For those working in the climate space in Nigeria, the opening of the cafe is a promising step. 

“If we are able to raise these conversations around the mental implications of climate change, we can achieve a lot,” said Adebote, who works to support the growing climate-smart startup industry across Africa. “We have a saying here: a problem shared is half solved.” 

Sola Alamutuaka, AKA Green Queen, one of The Eco Anxiety Project’s climate elders. Image: Taiwo Aina

But he remains sceptical about whether Nigeria will be transformed into a nation of climate justice advocates. “These climate cafes are working effectively in other parts of the world and for that reason, we want to try to replicate the same thing here,” he says. “But I would say from the starting point, that to be truly effective, it has to go far beyond that.” 

Back in Lagos, Ihuoma Okechukwu, who in term time is a student at the University of Nigeria Nsukka in the country’s eastern region, is talking with the other cafe visitors about the seasonal changes she’s witnessed. “I don’t know if it’s the climate making me sadder but once the season changes, I am always scared,” she says. 

She has developed a reputation for nagging fellow students, Okechukwu admits, for disposing of waste down the drainage pipes, blocking them and causing the area to flood. This provides a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes. She describes this as one thing she can try to control, even if fixing the climate is out of her grasp.  

Coming to the climate cafe has challenged me to be a drive for change, and to speak up no matter what people think

Sola Alamutu, one of the climate elders at the cafe who goes by the nickname ‘Green Queen’, has some sage advice. Intergenerational dialogue is a key feature of the TEAP project, matching those who are experiencing eco-distress with a seasoned mentor who can share their experience and wisdom.   

“Talking helps,” says Alamutu, who runs a green festival promoting environmental issues through art, dance, drama and music. “When you have a community, it makes you feel less anxious. Climate change is affecting everybody and everything. This is a safe space for us to talk about the emotions that brings.” 

After three hours of heartfelt conversation, the cafe closes its doors for the day. Akinjisola has made up his mind to be more vocal about climate issues, and the cafe has helped him to realise that silence is not helping his anxiety. 

“It has challenged me to be a drive for change,” he says. “And to speak up no matter what people think.”

Main image: Akindipe Akinjisola, a banker in Lagos, feels anxious every rainy season at the prospect of flooding. Credit: Taiwo Aina

Developing Mental Wealth is a series produced by Positive News and funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

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