Categories: Features Interviews

On Youth Activism, Climate Change, and Contemporary Pan-Africanism

“We are the first generation to feel the unmistakable impact of climate change; but we are also the last generation to do something to prevent the coming tragedy.”

Rabat – These are interesting times to be African, so saturated is the air with discourses of “Africa rising,” or “the new scramble for Africa,” or even the ubiquitous public invocation (or shunning) of the “new justice warriors.” Africa, it has been said, will be the center of gravity of world affairs in the next few decades.

When pushed on these unending ideological, intellectual interpretations of the “idea of Africa,” Rachid Ennassiri, a young Moroccan climate activist who was recently selected by the Obama Foundation for his inspiring work on climate consciousness and sustainable living, prefers to switch the conversation to safer terrains.

As he spoke to Morocco World News on the heels of his participation in the Obama Leaders: Africa initiative, the young Moroccan seemed religiously invested in the idea of Africanness as both a feeling and a passionate interest in the betterment of the continent and its people.

But Ennasiri’s preference for the known and tested, at least when discussing certain ideas of what it means to be African today, should not be mistaken as a refusal to engage with the challenges of our times.

His, essentially, is a refusal to be distracted by unnecessary distinctions that often end in protracted discussions which cloud understanding more than they explain.

So, to the question of “Who is really African?” the young Moroccan prefers that of “What does it mean to be African today?” Or: In these times of unprecedented political upheavals characterized by the unprecedented urgency of the climate crisis, how does Africa relate to the shifting world around?

“Today, Africa is the victim of irresponsible behavior from other continents,” Ennassiri says, appearing to echo the established notion that the continent has become the theater of geopolitical and economic battles that benefit the interests of corporations and other third parties with no direct stakes in the outcomes of their “irresponsible behavior” in the continent.

The Malian Aminata Traore has called this “raped imaginary,” referring to the overpowering feeling that one’s destiny is controlled by centripetal forces over which one does not have the faintest control.

“And so,” Ennassiri continued, “policies and techniques of resilience and adaptability have become crucial.” The slight exaggerations in Ennassiri’s response speak of his activist’s proclivity to spur action. In the young Moroccan’s reckoning, activism comes with a dogged optimism in the future, an almost fanatical faith that, for all the seemingly irreversible odds, change is always a possibility.

Fresh from his recent trip to attend the six-day leadership training organized by the Obama Foundation in Johannesburg in mid July, Ennassiri’s rhetoric seems to have taken an African dimension. But his is a subtle, almost globalist pan-Africanism that is more concerned with “the challenges facing us today” than with notions of cultural authenticity so pervasive in Afro-centrist circles.

“I remember listening to Kofi Annan’s speech at the 2018 Young Obama Leaders  event. He said that the greatest challenge for our generation is tackling climate change and its devastating impacts on our lives,” Ennassiri said with unexpected gusto, almost delighting in having his profound conviction validated by a world affairs luminary.

“The environment is deteriorating at a much faster pace than our current efforts to adapt. We need to find new ways to adapt and urgently rise to the challenges ahead, at the risk of finding ourselves in a complicated, irreversible situation.”

At his age, 26, Ennassiri can easily—and understandably—come across as an overachiever. But what he is, or at least what he wants to be seen as, is a passionate lover of life who has understood that so messy is our world today that whatever is left of it calls for salvaging from those who cannot afford to idly stand by, uncritically consuming what the official narrative sells them.

Coordinator of a sustainable tourism foundation in Morocco’s High Atlas, founding member of the Moroccan Youth Center for Sustainable Energy based in Morocco’s Ouarzazate Province, the young Moroccan is also the recipient of a series of national and international youth activism prizes.

The prizes include, among others, the 2017 Outstanding Young Person in Morocco Award and the 2016 environmental poetry award organized by the International Human Dynamics consortium.

But, even as he talked to Morocco World News amid the aura of these prizes, as well as the prestigious validation that comes with being picked among the anointed few to crowd the 200 spots annually offered by the Obama Foundation for young African leaders, Ennassiri spoke entirely from a place of an activist’s humility.

For him, activism supposes an elemental undertaking that we are never the center of gravity of the causes we espouse, even when we are the central actors.

That is, the very essence of our singular lives goes beyond the confines and needs of the self. You can imagine Ennassiri approvingly smiling along as Greta Thunberg recently told members of the American Congress that she and her peers are not in this fight for attention or some delusion of grandeur about being more, or as important, as the cause one claims to defend.

On a very practical level, Ennassiri’s participation in the Obama Foundation-organized event has added new layers to his commitment to issues of climate and youth, from broadening his notion of community to enlarging his passion for empathy. If anything, spending days in the close proximity of youth from all corners of Africa has positively nuanced his perception of Africa and Africanness. This is most evidenced in his acute fervor for social justice and “collective, regional platforms for action” when speaking of Africa and its place in these tumultuous times of ours.

Activists are bound to bond and network, he said. This reflects a certain understanding that effectiveness is more likely to come through “concerted efforts.” But also implied in this tendency towards collective capacity building is the pointed optimism in the transformational energy of human warmth, collaboration.

The promise of youth leadership, Ennassiri argued, comes perhaps in the notion, deeply felt among the young leaders he has so far met, that there can only be change when determined kindred spirits agree on laying out new grammars or pathways to impact the thinking of those in the decision-making seat.

At heart, activism, at least as the young Moroccan sees it, passes through coming together with people who feel the same pain and urgency on given social topics. The point is at once to raise awareness and garner a visibility that can enact palpable changes.

As he recalls the fond memories of the six immersive and transformational days spent in Johannesburg in the company of “inspiring young Africans,” Ennassiri speaks of pan-Africanism today as some kind of enlightened activism for Africa.

One of the most memorable things he took away from his time in the South African city is the need to come up with an expansive and fluid sense of Africanness. Instead of asking, as typical intra-African prejudices go, whether countries like Egypt, Morocco, or Algeria are truly African, the question should be asked as to how concerned these countries feel about Africa.

As globalization renders many borders meaningless or irrelevant, genuine “passion for common causes” is more valuable than a certain feeling of genealogical entitlement.

As Ennassiri sees it, it is no longer a question of White or Black Africans, or circumstantial and authentic Africans. The question, rather, now has to do with who is doing—or ready to do what it takes—to help the continent meet the relentless challenges thrown in its way by neoliberal globalization.

In the world of the young Moroccan, palpable efforts to come to terms with migration, food insecurity, and climate catastrophe, among others, should be the new markers of pan-Africanism. Being a pan-African is no longer about chanting throaty slogans of self-affirmation or ostracizing those deemed not Black enough to be deserving of Africa.

“For me, being a pan-African today means to invest in finding ways of working collectively to mitigate the common challenges we face. It is to ensure regional cooperation platforms between young Africans, in such a way that they are adequately equipped to be leaders and prepared for the challenges to come. It is about being an effective actor for change.”

In a recent article on an African-type Green New Deal, Carlos Lopes argued that the violent Cyclone Idai which recently hit southern Africa, affecting thousands in Mozambique, was a stark reminder of Africa’s vulnerability to the intensifying consequences of climate change.

Lopes proposed an African coalition to tackle the deepening impact of climate change-induced drought and floods. He called for “meaningful, coordinated actions that put the entire continent on a more inclusive and sustainable path.” Overcoming the array of challenges facing the continent requires, he continued, “moments of collective focus and clarity.”

Ennassiri agrees.

Africa’s recurrent clime-induced crises point to the shaky foundations of the current economic model throughout most of the continent. In much of Africa, he insisted, there is a need to replace the prevailing consumption-based model with one of caring for life and community. Ennassiri’s, then, is a sense of a strikingly acute hope engrained in a fundamental belief in the unimpeachable value of collective action.

“As President Obama emphasized,” he said, citing a video message the president sent to this year’s Obama Leaders cohort, “we are the first generation to feel the unmistakable impact of climate change; but we are also the last generation to do something to prevent the coming tragedy.”