Anita Soina remembers a time when her community used to herd cows, sheep, and goats to the banks of the Mara River in her native Kenya. “We would fetch water and wash clothes, bathe and water the animals,” says the 23-year-old Maasai with a nostalgic smile. A victim of droughts, deforestation, mining, resource mismanagement, and climate change, the landscape around the Mara River today is nothing like the one she remembers, she said in an article of the global alliance Sanitation and Water for All written by Christine Luby. There is no water left and the land looks brittle. “Seeing it breaks my heart. I feel a rage inside me that has turned into a motivation to fight,” she says. And fight she does. Soina has become a climate change activist, one of more than 100 from around the world who arrived in Barcelona in October to share their ideas and projects as part of an international campaign for climate justice.
“The climate in our region is extreme. Rainfall has been progressively reduced, causing droughts. At the same time, when there is some rainfall, we are affected by floods. This has degraded the land and brought pastoralists to a critical situation. The cattle are dying of thirst and starvation,” Soina says as she caresses her Maasai necklace, made of small colored beads. Her community, one of the largest pastoralist communities in East Africa, has been feeling the effects of climate change for decades and its members have been forced to migrate and adapt to weather factors. Deforestation and mining are “increasingly severe,” Soina explains, and cultivation has become, at times, “impossible,” aggravating an already severe food security crisis.
Access to water is, in short, a “real challenge” for her community. But the problem does not end there. “With water scarcity comes conflict and inequalities,” Soina says, providing some examples. “For starters, it prevents young women and girls, who are often the main water carriers, from completing their studies and contributes to an increase in child marriages in exchange for money or livestock for families. It also affects menstrual hygiene, which can be detrimental to women’s health.” Over 86% of girls aged between nine and 13 live in rural areas in Kenya and 80.8% of them attend elementary school, but only 14.3% go on to enroll in high school, according to data from Newcastle University. In her community, Soina continues, the discussion about access to water is very different from among global organizations: “You are talking about clean, safe water; we are talking about any kind of water at all.”
SDGs, an inspiration
Soina has been an activist since she was 17, when she first became interested in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). “They are my inspiration. My mentor introduced them to me and it seemed to me that the best way to contribute to society was climate action, because climate change is at the heart of everything. In the end, it is a serious threat to global food security, sustainable development, and poverty eradication, and its consequences affect many different aspects of life. It’s interconnected and it’s happening now,” she says with a defiant look.
Her earliest projects were focused on planting trees. But she quickly realized that many young activists, including herself, felt alienated from sustainability and conservation because of the technical language used in those fields, which makes it difficult to share knowledge with younger people, she explains on the platform Sanitation and Water for All. “I began to explore ways to make conservation more appealing and simplify the discourse, with the purpose of engaging more people, especially young people, in this process. My goal was to attract more individuals and show that you don’t need a degree in environmental science to get involved,” she told the alliance.
To this end, she wrote her book The Green War, which explains environmentalism in simple terms and actions for the non-scientific community. She also founded Spice Warriors, an environmental organization that she defines as “a passionate community of environmental warriors.” They focus on climate education for school children, but also for youth, leaders, and society in general. They also organize activities related to the environment, ranging from tree growing and forest restoration, cleaning beaches and natural environments, to activism both on the ground and on social networks. “We learn, educate, and act,” says Soina, who was one of the youngest representatives to attend COP26, held in late 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland.
She recently created the Soina Foundation, a non-profit organization that seeks to support affected rural communities, especially the Maasai, in accessing basic needs such as education. At the same time, the foundation addresses other social issues such as sanitation, health, education, and sexual and reproductive well-being. As a subject matter expert, last January Soina began a two-year term as Global Youth Champion for the UNICEF-hosted Sanitation and Water for All (SWA) global partnership.
Educating political leaders
Soina’s work has a major impact on her community but she notes it remains a priority for politicians as well. “In my country, for example, many legislators don’t even know about the Paris Climate Agreement. They don’t know what’s going on with climate change and water scarcity. When they don’t have information, they don’t participate,” she told Sanitation and Water for All. As such, in 2022, she became the youngest person ever to run for Kenya’s National Assembly. “I knew that one day I would run for political office,” she admits with a chuckle. “I always wanted to try to influence change from within the corridors of power.”
Although her first electoral attempt was unsuccessful, her efforts caught the attention of Senator Moses Otieno Kajwang, who invited her to join him in a project that educates Kenyan lawmakers and parliamentarians on environmental issues. “Environmental education is extremely important, not only among young people, but also among political leaders. The change is there,” she says. “We activists cannot fight climate change alone. Let’s get everyone on board, let everyone speak and, above all, let’s listen to each other.”
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