Durban Conference of Youth


Esther Agbarakwe* seeks provocatively for the African youth and the African voice against the backdrop of the Durban Conference of Youth.

More than 400 young people from all over the world gathered at the University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) during COP17 for the 7th annual Conference of Youth (COY). The conference is about bringing together youth from all over the world who are passionate about sustainability and climate change. It’s a place to connect, share skills and build a movement. This was my second time at COY. I felt I had some experience and was inspired to attend the COY7 on African soil.

African youth?

Arriving at the venue, my first question was: Where are the African youth delegates? I whispered this to my African youth delegate from Cameroon, because the room was already filled with young people from the global north (you can see the marked difference from the skin colour alone).

I was worried because as African youth facilitators we hoped that for the first time African youth would have equal representation at COP17. The African Youth Justice Caravan arrived and the hall was now more than half filled with African delegates — mostly from the Southern African Countries (Kenya, South Africa, and Malawi).

I was proud of this and felt a sort of entitled solidarity with the ‘African movement’. Even though the people running the COY sessions were mostly Australian or international, at least many delegates were local.

African voice?

But what does locality mean in the face of a global movement? Who speaks, and who gets listened to? What capacity do they have to effectively engage with other youth on the relevant issues at the COP? In a lot of senses the African continent is still not diversified although it consists of 53 countries. While ‘Africa’ is represented in global talks and movements just as it is at COY, is there an African voice and is it listened to as other organisations from the global north get listened to?

There are lots of African voices speaking out, but there is something very uncomfortable about the way in which we are ‘facilitated’ to speak by others, and the way in which they in turn listen to what we have to say. Of course, the global north, in their experience and monetary advantage, do have a lot to teach with ‘building capacity’. This is especially true at political gatherings such as the COP, which requires a specific way of speaking to be taken even remotely seriously.

Wangari Maathai’s legacy

Making my tribute to the late Professor Wangari Maathai at the opening plenary, I spoke of the need to empower young African women as Wangari believed and worked for with her Green Belt movement. Seeing myself standing on the podium, speaking and helping to facilitate the COY, was just one example of this.

Soon after, I took my heavy backpack outside to prepare for the exhibition. I got a table outside where a long line of youth were standing to get food. Many of them stopped to talk to me about my statement and the importance of empowering women. Everything points to the fact that African youth, and global youth at large, are very interested to know and be engaged on a range of issues. The question we need to answer is: how do they make the connections and what actions can we take?

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