My name is Nyombi Morris, and I was born on the 28th of March, 1998. I am a climate activist from Uganda and a social media manager at Rise Up Movement. I am where I am because I want to live in a world where natural resources and people’s lives are respected and put above profit.
When I was young, I dreamt of being a humanitarian journalist. I imagined that, from a young age, I would publish powerful pieces of news that would speak to the heart of people around my country. In practice, this proved impossible. From childhood, finding food, education or even sleep has been like a tug of war. My dad left my family when I was six years old, and my mum was left alone looking after me, my younger brother, and my sister. She didn’t have enough money to pay our rent, so we had to move into a slum called Luzira, where we stayed next to our grandmother. My mother had to look after a six-year-old, a two-year-old, and a four-month baby all on her own, and she also had to find work to keep us fed and educated. Luckily I performed well and was given sponsorship at my secondary schools, but even then I had to change school because that initial bursary ran out. At my new school, I did excellently, but when I finished my course in Computer Science in 2019, we just didn’t have enough money for me to go to University. That was the way with my early life – either we just didn’t have the money, or the money had been washed away.
In Luzira, we felt the full impacts of Climate Change. Luzira is near Lake Victoria, and when it rains, the lake overflows and water floods into the slums. If my mother was at work and I was at school and it started raining, there was nothing we could do – we would come back and find our possessions floating. We reached a point where we just moved our most valuable items to my grandmother’s house so that we wouldn’t have to replace them again. If it rained at night, it was worse. One night that stayed with me was in November 2014. It started to rain, and then the power went off. My mum came to wake me up, and we carried out our clothes and books in a basin – she carried my siblings too. We used a phone light to see where we were going and went to my grandmother’s house. There, we stayed awake for the entire night. We didn’t feel safe – it had felt like our house was about to collapse. In the day, at least we could have got a basin and bailed out some of the water – in the night that had just seemed too dangerous. In total, my mother lost more than 10,000,000UGX (£2000) to flooding.
But what was much more shocking was the realisation that the people around me were making the flooding worse. One day, I was outside washing kitchen utensils when it started to rain. Suddenly, I saw people running outside and pouring sacks of garbage into the drainage system – a system designed to take solely water. This garbage would only block the water, and make the flooding much worse. When I asked them why they were doing this, one of them explained that the area was too congested to burn the rubbish and that the company they were paying to pick the garbage up had stopped coming. She said that they had tried to task the government to help, but that nobody had listened. They were using the rain to wash away their rubbish because it was their only option left. I looked at them all, and I was left speechless because I knew she had a point somehow.
Time went by, and after I finished my course in 2019 I had no job, so spent a lot of my time watching television. One day I saw a news broadcast of a girl standing in front of our parliament, demanding that the government take action on Climate Change. I immediately went on Facebook to look for her and saw that remarkably she was on my friend’s list. I contacted her, and we set up a meeting to discuss climate change and its effects. This was Vanessa Nakate, Uganda’s best-known Climate Activist, and a global figure of climate action. After our meeting, I thought long and hard about climate change. I realised then that climate change had caused many of the challenges I had faced throughout my life. But if I had not met Vanessa, I would not have known about it. I became a Climate Activist in September 2019 and began to educate my community about Climate Change.
The life of activism is not easy in Uganda. Last year in September, a huge patch of forest near Bugoma was sold to a sugarcane company, which intended to completely destroy the forest. We put public pressure on the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA) to ask them why they had approved this terrible plan. In three days, five Twitter accounts including mine were frozen, and it took us a month and a half to unfreeze them (and that only came after condemnation from Greta Thunberg). This was a way of silencing us, and it worked – when our accounts were reactivated, we gave up on that patch of forest. What’s more, on the 25th of March this year, my brother and I were striking as part of the Fridays for Future movement. We had stood by the road for five minutes when a group of policemen jumped off a truck (I don’t know where their truck came from) and grabbed us. They took us to their truck and asked us who we worked for. I told them we didn’t work for anyone and explained that I was a climate activist, trying to teach people about the world’s rising temperatures, pointing out that everyone walks around with a water bottle these days, campaigning about our forests being sold and destroyed. I said that I was not political, that I was just demanding climate justice. As soon as I had finished speaking, one of them slapped me, and another kicked me in the stomach. Then one accused me of inciting violence and asked me to get my phone. I started pleading, asking them to please forgive me, and begging them please not to take me to prison. My brother had already started weeping. Luckily, the police officers saw that they had attracted a crowd, and they told us to go home. Before we did, they took my phone and the placard that I had been holding and threatened that the next time they saw me on the street they would try and give me a life sentence in prison.
In the future, I plan to start up a project called Used Plastics. If we do manage to get support, it will be one of the biggest recycling projects in Uganda, focusing on reusing and recycling plastic from across the country. At the moment, we’re on social media (mostly Instagram) trying to build an audience, and teaching people about how to fight plastic waste. In the last two years, we have mainly focused on tree-planting and saving our forests, and indeed I personally have planted at least 100 trees. But in doing this, we have overlooked the danger that plastic waste poses to our planet. It can take decades for plastic to decompose, and microplastics have leached into every food chain around the world – this is from a US National Ocean report released in 2016. The same report also concludes that there is a risk that in the next decade, the amount of plastic in the ocean will triple. We need to take action.
The only tangible thing I want to see is for leaders around the world to change their behaviour and start to value people’s lives. Currently, most leaders don’t work on their people’s will – they prioritise profit and capitalism. Leaders across the world have failed to treat climate change as a crisis – they have a misplaced feeling that it will never affect them as coronavirus did. The solution to climate change is very easy: make leaders listen to what their voters want. If they can’t do that, then we need to bring in new leadership which will put people above profit. We’re tired of pretenders. I always try my best to remind my people and those who follow me on social media to believe in the power of their voice. The more noise you make, the more accountability you demand from your leaders, the more the world will change for the better. Leaders are there to serve us, not to serve themselves.