For Allen Ottaro, caring for the environment is part of his “calling to serve God”.
The 35-year-old activist from Nakuru, Kenya, has become a leading advocate for climate action across the continent, by mobilising Catholic youth.
From small beginnings in 2011, with 15 like-minded friends who met after church services, he established the Catholic youth network for environmental sustainability in Africa (Cynesa) to spread the word.
“I discovered that youths in our church are an untapped resource and can be engaged in conservation activities,” he told Climate Home News.
Sub-Saharan Africa has one of the most youthful populations in the world, with more than 200 million people aged 15-24 and rising. This youth bulge brings environmental challenges, increasing demand for natural resources at the same time as climate change puts a strain on ecosystems.
They are also a force for positive change, Joyce Msuya, deputy executive director at UN Environment, emphasised at a conference organised by the Vatican in July.
“We are deeply committed to working with youth, as well as with faith leaders and faith-based organizations from around the world, to achieve the goals set out in the 2030 agenda for sustainable development,” she said.
Since establishing Cynesa, Ottaro has worked with parishes, schools and other groups to address climate change and other environmental issues. In his home diocese of Nakuru, the youth have planted 8,000 trees.
The network has spread like wildfire across Africa and now registers members from more than 10 countries, including Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Zambia, Rwanda and South Africa.
In Tanzania, for example, 500 young people turn out to clean the beaches of Dar es Salaam every three months.
“Convincing church leaders to give this a priority isn’t easy but this has to change,” Ottaro said.
Mercy Munene, a student at United States International University Africa (USIU), is a volunteer with Cynesa who has taken part in environmental activities and received mentoring.
“The opportunity awakens my consciousness and now I’m very sensitive to environmental issues,” she said. The opportunity has inspired her to teach others about Christianity’s message of care for creation.
Alphonse Rugigana, with training and guidance from Cynesa, organises environmental activities like tree planting and clean up exercises in various parishes in Rwanda.
The Archdiocese of Kigali has planted 500 tree seedlings, with the help of four primary schools, and works with five universities on environmental education for 300 students.
“I’m so happy today, our work is much easier with the help of the church because it’s a credible organization,” said Rugigana. “We mentored a generation of environmentally conscious youngsters to bring a positive action to promote environmental conservation.”
Four years after Pope Francis issued a letter to the faithful, Laudato Si, calling on them to take action on climate change, a conference in Nairobi hammered the message home.
“Our continent is particularly vulnerable to the climate and biodiversity crises… the ‘cry of the climate’ is already proving devastating to many African countries” said leading church official Bruno Duffè. “I am encouraged about the participation of young Catholics in these mobilizations given the urgency of the situation.”
This article was produced as part of an African reporting programme supported by Future Climate for Africa.