The cold was biting Tajiel Urioh so much that he was shivering like one of the leaves of the hundreds of trees in the forest that sits at the footstool of Tanzania’s Mt. Meru. Although he was just a kid, he knew those trees well because almost daily for several years, he wandered into this forest in search of firewood. Today, the cold had dulled some of the excitement that usually raced through him whenever he raced into the forest. Although that locality was generally cold due to its proximity to the mountain, today it seemed to be twice as cold.
Aaaah! Tajiel exclaimed loudly. He had just seen one of his favorite birds perch on one of his favourite trees. He didn’t know it then, but Mt. Meru actually has more than 400 different bird species. Among them was the African crowned eagle that he had just seen. Some of his fellow children feared it because it was so big and had small, piercing eyes. But he loved that it was so big. When it glided low, its large wings blocked out a part of the sky, which intrigued Tajiel. He sometimes wondered if it could carry him. He also wondered where it lived, because he had never seen a nest big enough to house it.
As he was watching the eagle that was also watching him, the eagle flapped its massive wings vigorously, causing several twigs to fall down from the tree.
Asante! Thanks! Tajiel said as he ran and scooped the twigs into his arms. The eagle had just gifted him with half of the firewood that he needed. This endeared him even more to the big bird.
Tajiel hails from a small village in Arusha region, not too far from the seat of the East Africa Community. His village is in the vicinity of Mt. Meru, Africa’s fifth highest mountain and Tanzania’s second highest mountain. It is only seventy kilometers west of Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain.
He is from Tanzania’s Meru community, whose population is approximately 2 million people. Although his community shares the same name with Kenya’s Meru tribe, these two are completely different ethnic communities with different histories and identities.
Because his village was eight kilometers away from school, Tajiel spent two hours every day walking to and from school. In the mornings, he would wipe his feet in the morning dew as he laughed with neighboring kids who were also in the same school with him. Due to such antics, they often arrived to school late.
Since the school was downhill and surrounded by hills, they would get a vantage view that revealed to them if the parade was already underway. If that was the case, then Tajiel and two older friends would slither away to the bush to while away the morning as they waited for an opportune time to sneak into school. Sometimes, that opportune time never came, so they simply returned home in the afternoon.
After returning home, a meal of ugali and mchicha (amaranth) would be followed by another run into the forest for firewood. This was a staple of his daily chores. It only changed when his father arranged for him to move to another village and stay with a relative whose homestead was nearer his primary school.
In that new village, the search for firewood was replaced by another, even more pressing search.
The beautiful Mt. Meru stood guard in the background as the now ten-year old Tajiel half-walked, half-ran along the rugged pathway. In his small hands was a ten-litre plastic container. In his stomach was nothing. He was hungry. Not because he hadn’t eaten but because he had been walking for more than five kilometers already. He was hunting for the most precious liquid in the world – water.
Tajiel was living with his aunt at the time spending nights in a mud-walled house whose rusty iron sheet roof did little to shield him from the cold that poured down from the nearby Mt. Meru at night.
His aunt’s village had neither a shallow well nor piped water. Just a nearby stream that was extremely moody. Sometimes, it flowed with abundant water, but sometimes it completely refused to yield any water.
Fast forward. It’s 2005 and Tanzania has a new President. Jakaya Kikwete. The 55-year old former Minister of Foreign Affairs has taken over from Benjamin Mkapa, who took the presidential baton from Ali Hassan Mwinyi, who succeeded the legendary Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, Tanzania’s first President.
Tajiel is now sixteen years old and studying at King’ori Secondary school. When he joined that school, he became the first person from his village to go to secondary school. In doing so, he raised the education bar a little bit higher for his younger siblings and other young people in the village.
King'ori Secondary school is even further from his village than his primary school was. To reach it from his village, you will have to walk for fifteen kilometers past dozens of villages, several steep hills and a handful of little shops that mostly sell bread, milk, bar soap, sugar, salt, cooking fat, wheat flour and tea leaves.
There was no way that Tajiel could cover this distance every day, so once again, his father had asked around for a relative who could host him. A distant aunt was found and she agreed to host him. It was while he staying with this distant aunt that Tajiel encountered again a problem that afflicts millions of other Africans – water shortage. His aunt’s village together with several others, comprising more than one hundred people depended on a stream that kept running out of water. Being one of the youngest in the homestead he was staying in, Tajiel had to take up duties of hunting for water wherever it could be found. He had to learn how to fetch water using a donkey, which was a lot better since the donkey could carry much more water and lessen the trips that had to be taken.
On a number of occasions, he had to join other villagers in fetching water from a tap that was a two-hour walk away. Once you got there, you had to wait in queue for others who had arrived before you to fill their water containers. As such, it would take him at least five hours to fetch water and deliver it back to his aunt’s homestead.
That particular tap from which they fetched water was along Mt. Meru forest and its water shot up from the bowels of the forest. In that regard, Mt. Meru was taking care of the people who had kept her company for centuries. But if only that pipe could be extended to their homes! The water situation in Tanzania remains dire even today because four out of ten Tanzanians still don’t have access to improved sources of safe water.
Such data, together with his own water woes experiences, compelled Tajiel to resolve that he would be part of the solution to his country’s water scarcity. Years later when he founded an organization known as Green Icon, he partnered with another youth organization known as Tengeneza Generation to provide water for Babayu Village that is located in a semi-arid region of Central Tanzania.
Green Icon and Tengeneza Generation drilled a borehole then installed a solar powered water pump and related infrastructure for water supply in Babayu village.
“I will never forget the look on the face of one of the local ladies as she watched her bucket fill up with water.” Tajiel says.
That lady was one of 80 households who now had guaranteed access to safe and clean water from the borehole. Also assured of this access were 500 pupils from a local primary school.
The road of life is long, full of twists, turns, potholes, bumps, bridges, great views, heartbreaks, triumphs, challenges, setbacks and opportunities.
Before this road of life led him to leadership junction, where he chose to turn right into environmental leadership, Tajiel was just a young student with an uncertain future staring at him.
A few months after joining King'ori Secondary, Tajiel had to rent a single room together with a fellow student. While that gave him more privacy, it brought with it new challenges of finding and cooking food on a daily basis. It soon became evident that the cheapest, most practical meal they could eat daily was ugali and dagaa, whose English name is silver cyprinid or Lake Victoria sardine. Locally, the colloquial name of these little fish, the size of two beans, was misumari. Despite this being the most affordable meal, many were the days when they couldn’t afford it. On most of these days, a friend of theirs known as Joel Gabriel came to their rescue. Bwak the Bantu Poet once wrote that, ‘when the world is running away from you, true friends run to you.’ Joel kept running to them. During extremely lean days when they didn’t even have firewood for cooking, he would, when necessary, steal some firewood for them. He would also occasionally bring them eggs from his homestead and give them a rare cuisine variety.
Due to all these basic struggles of his first year in Secondary school, it felt as if the road of his life arrived at a cliff and stopped there. Tajiel almost dropped out of school. Had that happened, it would have been the norm, not the exception. As recent as 2017, the Human Rights Watch released a report which revealed that more than forty percent of Tanzania’s adolescent have either dropped out of secondary school or not even proceeded with it.
When someone reaches a point when they have to choose between the basic struggle for survival and quest for education, the instinctive thing to do is to choose basic survival.
Although Tajiel avoided the educational cliff and proceeded with his education, financial constraints kept pulling him back. Whenever students who hadn’t paid school were sent home, he was always in the group that would sling their bags on their backs and march out of gate as their counterparts remained in class. Financial woes were like a rope around the neck of his formal education. The only way to loosen this noose was to find a job that would give him a fighting chance to survive and stay in school.
“Mia tano tu!” “Mia tano tu!” Only five hundred ! Only five hundred!
Tajiel shouted, as he lifted up a sleeveless white T-shirt whose front was screaming the words, ‘Chicago Bulls.’
One of the hardest things about this job was the shouting. He had to keep attempting to shout louder since the market was full of other second-hand clothes traders who were also shouting. If you didn’t increase your volume, you wouldn’t be heard by the few customers who came to the market during weekday afternoons. Every Thursday and Friday, Tajiel would take leave of absence from King’ori High school so that he could sell second-hand clothes at the market at King’ori market to make some money.
Due to this job and his frequent school fees woes, Tajiel spent less and less time in school. Every Thursday and Friday afternoon as he was shouting his lungs out, fellow students were ingesting chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, history and all those other lessons.
“Mbona sikuoni shuleni siku hizi?” Why don’t I see you in school nowadays?
His physics teacher asked him when he bumped into him in the marketplace.
“I transferred to another school.” Tajiel lied with a straight face. The market was teaching him to be a good actor. But it was also starving him of valuable academic time and making him feel lost whenever did attend class. As other students scribbled notes and nodded along as teachers taught, the shouted words, “Mia moja tu!” “Mia moja tu!” would reverberate in his mind.
Because of all the lessons he had missed, he decided to attend tuition in another school during holidays. This decision was to play a critical role in launching him into an environmental career. During the tuition lessons, he became intrigued with taxonomy, the science of naming, defining and classifying groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. This topic reminded him of the many hours he had spent both in Mt Meru Forest and the bush near his primary school. He immersed himself so much into biology that a few months later back in school, he scored the highest marks in Biology. From that point onwards, he was very active in class.
In order to meet the ever-present money challenges, he used the next holidays to work on a farm. The work entailed harvesting maize for a week. It was very tedious work that started at 6AM and ended at 6PM. They were paid as per the maize cobs harvested, so they pushed themselves as far as they could. Consequently, he earned the most money ever of his young life, which cushioned him later that term. In his fourth year of Secondary school, he was lucky to find accommodation with a local family. This took away the unending daily search for food. In addition, the father of the family taught him how to drive a tractor, which led him to spend hours in the farm, in the midst of nature. He watched the tractor turn large, hard chunks of soil into soft, fine soil particles that later soaked in seeds and nurtured those seeds into crops.
During this period, Tajiel also caught the hip-hop bug.
Sometimes while he was in the farm or walking back home from school, he would start rapping. He had grown to like hip hop so much that he did more than listen to it – he also came up with his own lyrics and rapped them to fellow students, usually on Fridays. He came up with a local hit song entitled, ‘no need for revenge.’ It could be that it was inspired by his semi-physical showdown with the chemistry teacher. That altercation had resulted in his desertion of school for several weeks.
Professor Jay a local Tanzanian hip-hop artist would sometimes show up in his mind without warning, as did the legendary Tupac Shakur. Hip-hop had emerged straight outta Compton and travelled for several decades and several thousand kilometers, straight into his heart and mind. Few things bathed him in joy the way hip-hop did. When he was spitting lyrics whether to a small crowd or to himself, he felt like Mase rapping in Brandy’s song, top of the world:'Brandy on top of the world; Darkchild on top of the world; Mase be on top of the world.'
Darkchild on top of the world. He liked that. Tajiel on top of the world.
Unfortunately, his world came crashing down after the final results of the national secondary school examinations were released.
“You have studied for four years for nothing!”
Tajiel’s uncle told him in a low but angry voice. A strong afternoon breeze slammed shut the living room’s lone wooden window.
“What do you mean?” Tajiel asked, alarm rising in him like a volcano.
His uncle handed him the national secondary school examinations result sheet for King’ori Secondary School. Although it was really crumpled, the printing on it was quite legible.
His eyes ran down to his name and he understood what his uncle was alluding to. Instead of a grade next to his name, there were blanks.
What! Tajiel’s eyes grew bigger. Was he seeing correctly? Indeed he was. Next to the names of all other students were grades for each subjects, followed by their overall grades. But for him, just blanks.
His uncle was right. It was evident that four years of secondary school had resulted in nothing. Just blanks.
Tajiel was so broken that he decided to focus on other things and forget about furthering his studies into High School. The road of his life had arrived a critical junction. On the left was a signpost with two words – Instant Cash. On the right were the words – High School.
In his mind, he was leaning heavily towards turning left.
I am going to focus on making a lot of money, not in some distant future, but now. He decided. He had an idea on how he could make mountains of money from a mountain. Marijuana was planted on sections of Mt. Meru. If he started trafficking that marijuana, he could fill his pockets with lots of those pink notes of 10,000 Tanzania shillings.
During his four years of schooling in the area, he had seen motorcycles ferry sackfuls of marijuana from Mt. Meru’s forest. A handful of his friends who were in the drug’s value chain and were never broke like him. They always had the best shoes, the fanciest T-shirts and coolest trousers, usually jeans. That’s the kind of life that he now wanted. After all, school has let me down. He thought again and again.
Since he had a small body and looked quite young, no one would ever suspect him of being a drug trafficker. The more he thought about it, the more he became convinced that drug trafficking was now a major part of his future. A future that would be awash with money.
But before he could start acting on this resolution, prayer intervened in a very literal way.
March 8th, which is the international Women’s day, was around the corner. On this day, the Lutheran Global Women’s ministry usually organizes global prayer sessions. That particular year in 2008, the Bolivian Chapter of the Lutheran Ministry was in charge of organizing the prayer session. Tajiel came across a brochure with this information. Included in the information was 2008’s prayer theme – drug addiction. That caught Tajiel’s eye. He read how drugs were killing the dreams of Bolivian youth and why it was important for the Church to fight drugs fully. He re-read the brochure again, this time slowly.
Drugs are killing the dreams of youth. These words jumped out of the brochure and hit him forcefully. He thought about his dreams of pursuing his studies until university and earning good money that would make a difference not just in his life but also the life of his family. He thought about his younger siblings and how they looked up to him. He thought about his parents and how they had placed their own dreams in him. Even though they had later separated, he knew that their love for him had remained unchanged.
He thought about his beloved grandfather, the one person who had molded him immensely. No. He couldn’t let them down. He couldn’t allow drugs to kill his dreams. He retracted the decision he had made in his mind and retraced his steps back to the junction, where he turned right to the road leading to High School.
Tajiel killed the plan of trafficking drugs and buried it deeply. He would go on with his studies. As if fate was waiting for him to make this decision, he finally got his results almost three months after others had received theirs. While his performance wasn’t sterling, it was sufficient to secure for him a place at Siha High School, a government school that was located on the slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro.
A few months later in September, he joined this High School and was pleased that it was less than an hour away from Mt. Kilimanjaro, Africa’s tallest mountain. This gave him a chance to use weekends for hiking lower sections of the famous mountain and swimming in nearby rivers. Yet again, nature remained by his side like a true friend.
Tajiel could see the bridge that stood between him and the university. That bridge was in the form of the final national High School Examinations that were still two years away. If he passed those exams, he would cross the bridge into university education. That would be a historic fete for his village as he would become the first person from that village to step into university, make him the village’s Neil Armstrong of university education. Scattered across Africa are many such psychological barriers of achievement, not because of lesser potential, but because of lesser opportunities.
Knowing that the stakes were quite high, Tajiel invested his entire heart and energies into studies. He even inscribed on his desk the words, ‘Division 1 is my right. Hope for the Best.’ He was determined to achieve Division 1, the best possible result. Also engraved in his mind was Isaiah 41:10, his father’s favourite verse:
Fear not, for I am with you; Be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you; Yes, I will help you; I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
Such was the attitude with which he studied for two years until he sat for his final High School examinations. He faced those exams with courage and determination, confident that he had planted sufficiently and would reap sterling results.
After completing High School that year in February, Tajiel started helping an uncle of his with production and distribution of dairy products, mostly cheese. He wanted to gain some business experience and earn some extra money.
When the results came out in May, he was among the top-five students in the school who had attained Division 1!
Tajiel couldn’t stop smiling that day. He was so thrilled that finally, his dream of going to University was about to be released. With such sterling results, he was going to gain automatic entry into a public university. He would also qualify for student loans from the government, which would lessen his financial burden.
His only preoccupation became zeroing in on the degree course to pursue. He had an option of choosing between Human Resource Management and Bachelor of Art in Geography and Environmental Studies. Because of his lifelong relationship with nature, he chose the latter and later on received an admission letter to the University of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania’s oldest University.
Established in 1961 as an affiliate college of the University of London, it became it became an affiliate of the University of East Africa in 1963 before becoming an independent University in 1970. Among the prominent Africans who studied there are John Magufuli, President of Tanzania; Yoweri Museveni, President of Uganda; Jakaya Kikwete, Edward Lowassa, former Prime Minister of Tanzania; former President of Tanzania; John Garang, former Vice President of South Sudan; Laurent-Désiré Kabila, the former President of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Donald Kaberuka, former President of the African Development Bank. Tajiel was now poised to be in this illustrious company. He could hardly wait for the road of life to deposit him into those hallowed lecture halls of the University of Dar es Salaam.
In late October 2010, Tajiel boarded a Dar es Salaam bound bus in Arusha and set off for the long 630 kilometer journey. Ensconced in the bus’s luggage carrier were his two suitcases. Safely tucked away in his mind were his dreams of the better, brighter future that would be unlocked by university education.
More than ten hours later, his bus arrived at Dar es Salaam’s Ubungo bus terminal. He gazed out of the window excitedly. So this is how Dar es Salaam looks like! He thought. It was his first time ever in the country’s economic capital. He was both excited and afraid because the streets of Dar had a reputation of petty crime. He half expected that the moment he would get out of the bus, someone would snatch his two suitcases.
Sultan Majid bin Said of Zanzibar built Dar es Salaam in the 1860s. Back then, it was just a tiny town on the shores of the Indian Ocean. Loosely translated from Arabic, Dar es Salaam means ‘house of peace.’
In 1887, the German East Africa company established its headquarters in Dar es Salaam, which led to its expansion. This expansion was further reinforced after construction of Mittellandbahn (German for Central Line Railway line) in the 1900s. It snakes its way from Dar es Salaam to Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika via Dodoma.
The Dar es Salaam that Tajiel arrived into that sweltering evening was a far cry from that nascent Dar es Salaam of the 1900s. It was now a sprawling modern city that is home to approximately five million people.
The quest for higher education had brought Tajiel to this coastal city and he intended to give it his best shot. Within a few days, he was introduced to Environmental studies. As he sat in his first lecturer, surrounded by other eager young people from across Tanzania, he whispered a prayer of gratitude. Just by being there, in that university lecture hall, he was taking one small step for himself and a giant leap for his village. He had broken the psychological barrier and set an example for other youth in his locality to shoot for university.
It had taken his village for Tajiel to land at University. Babu, his grandfather had superbly captained the village army that fought for him to advance in his studies. Babu was a thoughtful man who liked to spend time herding his cattle. He knew all of them well and delighted in grazing them in the sprawling fields that tugged Mt. Meru’s ankles.
Although Babu didn’t have a large stature, he had a large mind that was endowed with decades of life on the slopes of Mt. Meru. For his entire life, he had interacted closely with the mountain’s lush landscapes and ecosystems. He knew a lot about the medicinal qualities of trees and instilled that knowledge into his young grandson.
That tree is a powerful one, he would say. Mti wa ajabu. A tree of wonder. It can heal several ailments. As he uttered these words, the wrinkles on his face would fold further, as his eyes shut momentarily. Even his voice would go down a notch. His reverence for trees wasn’t lost on young Tajiel.
On another occasion, he would point out the African Redwood tree and tell him how he had climbed it as a child.
“Waona ule mdobore,” Do you see that Mdobore, he would say wistfully, using the tree’s Swahili name, “ulikua ukisimama pale kabla ya babu yangu kuzaliwa.” It was standing there long before my own grandfather was born.
The tree had an umbrella-shaped crown and beautiful orange flowers that can be used to treat tapeworms. Its roots can be boiled in meat to conjure a soup that treats malaria while its bark can halt a running stomach. Babu knew all these medicinal qualities of this tree and several others. He had learnt from his father who had in turn learnt from his own father. The indigenous medicinal knowledge kept passing on like a baton, from generation to generation.
Babu also taught Tajiel about a certain plant known locally as mkongoraa and scientifically as mondia whitei. The plant’s roots were said to be an appetizer. They were also reputed to increase male virility, which made them popular with young and old men alike. When Tajiel realized that these roots were quite popular with students, he started harvesting them from the bushes and carrying them to his primary school to sell them. He would sell one root for 20 Tanzania Shillings, which was enough to buy two mandazis. In that sense, he got quite an early introduction to non-timber forest products and the green economy!
“Uendapo msituni, usibebe panga” Don’t ever carry a machete whenever you go into the bush, Babu would tell Tajiel.
“Ukifanya hivyo hutashikwa na tamaa ya kukata chochote,” that way, you will not be tempted to cut anything in the bush.
As far as Babu was concerned, whatever was of the bush, should be left to the bush, as much as possible. This instilled in Tajiel a reverence for nature that underpinned his environmental activism in later years.
Babu also played an active role in paying Tajiel’s school fees. He even sold one of his prized bulls to pay for Tajiel’s school fees. A big red bull that had been born in his homestead and become like a family member. Tajiel knew this bull well since as a child, he himself had herded it and the other cattle often. For Babu to sell it, it meant that he truly believed in Tajiel and in the power of education.
As the first months of university rolled by, Tajiel’s pursuit of higher education started opening up his mind further. He grew restless about his financial means. Memories of the dire financial struggles of secondary school were still fresh in his mind. If he had found ways of making money back then, when he was just a teenager, then surely he could do so now. So he seized an opportunity to undertake network-marketing business through GNLD, a global conglomerate of food nutrition supplements.
He was so devoted to this business that he was able to recruit dozens of other network marketers within a few months. The more he recruited, the more he earned. This gave him such decent earnings that he was able to purchase a laptop and a smartphone, which made him one of the few smartphone owners in class. This gave him bragging rights that he was happy to revel in.
By the time he screeched into his second year at University Tajiel could afford to rent his own house. This was a major achievement for a student because in Dar es Salaam, tenants usually pay house rent annually, not monthly.
Although sparsely furnished, the one-bedroom house was replete with the most important item to him – his laptop. He spent many late nights hunched over that laptop, devouring its music, movies and Excel records of his businesses. It often blared songs by Nako 2 Nako, one of his favourite Tanzanian hip hop groups. He would nod as he rapped along and crunched revenue figures of his network marketing business.
Also supplementing his salary at this time was distribution of his uncle’s cheese and sale of computer anti-virus software. Through these hustles, he was able to employ fellow students occasionally.
At this time, Tanzania was home to approximately 8.1 million youth aged between 14 – 25 years. This number had doubled from 4.4 million in 1990, which further strained employment opportunities. By providing occasional employment to his fellow young people, Tajiel was helping them along the bumpy road of life and making their university life a little less difficult.
Two years later, Tajiel completed university. Ideally, a good job should have been waiting for him right outside the university gates. After all, he was the first one to join university from his village. Unfortunately, he had just stepped into a job market where the demand is sky high and the supply woefully low. Out of the 420 million young Africans who are aged between 15 and 35, one third are unemployed.
Tajiel was determined not be part of this sorry statistics. He doubled down on his IT business and founded a non-profit organisation known as Green Icon. Its mission was to champion climate action, climate resilience and the youth agenda in Tanzania. Although excited by this new organization and its limitless potential, he wondered whether it would ever be able to access the climate funds that are pledged every year in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conferences.
Several years later, Tajiel was one of the expert reviewers of a UNEP Publication for youth that prescribed a solution to the climate financing struggle of youth organizations like his:
‘The inability of young people to successfully navigate the rigorous climate funding process leaves their climate action impaired. It would be prudent for global climate funds to have customised funding mechanisms that specifically target young people in Africa, or to peg a youth-funding conditionality on funds given to nationally-accredited agencies, compelling them to fund youth initiatives.’
Since Green Icon didn’t have any funding yet, Tajiel secured a job with a marketing company that offered to pay him a monthly salary of half a million Tanzanian Shillings ($200). This job gave him an additional revenue stream that complemented his IT business earnings. He may have wandered deeper into this business road if he hadn’t stumbled on a Facebook job ad by ForumCC, the Tanzanian Civil Society Forum on Climate Change. It was for a communications officer job.
He applied for the job, was invited for an interview and subsequently emerged as the top candidate. That marked the beginning of his official foray into the climate change space. What a space it was! It entailed working closely with Tanzania’s Ministry of Environment, dozens of civil society organizations, learning institutions, corporate players, religious institutions and international players like UNFCCC.
Tajiel soon realized that the climate space was crazier than the marketplace that he had once sold second hand clothes.
“This shirt costs 4,000 Tanzania shillings.”
“I only have 2,000,”
“My best price is 3,500.”
While the bargaining can be a lot more convoluted than this, the end goal is always clear to both parties, which isn’t necessarily the case in the climate space. The market’s clearly defined transactional interaction didn’t leave any room for ambiguity or confusion. These two – ambiguity and confusion – are constant realities in the climate space.
Within months of landing this job, Tajiel was thrown into the deepest end of climate negotiations. In late November 2014, he travelled for 12,655 kilometers from Dar es Salaam to another coastal city – Lima, Peru’s capital. The twentieth Conference of Parties (COP 20) was scheduled to take place there during the first week of December.
How should emission cuts be accounted for? This was the big question for the rich nations.
Who will foot the climate bill and by how much? This was the big question for developing countries.
For small island States, their priority focus for the conference was captured in three all-important words – not I Love You, but ‘loss and damage.’ The wanted the conference to officially acknowledge that climate change was causing them loss and damage.
Although it was his first time to attend such a conference, Tajiel found himself at the very centre of the action. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA) appointed him as their official rapporteur. His country Tanzania was also in the thick of things. It was the Coordinator of the Committee of the African Heads of State and Government on Climate Change (CAHOSCC).
On 9th December, Tanzania’s Vice President Dr. Mohamed Gharib Bilal read addressed the conference on behalf of Africa. About two minutes into his statement he read words that resonated very loudly with Tajiel, ‘A quarter of the African population suffers from acute water shortage.’
To most of the delegates, these were largely dry words from a high-ranking government official. To Tajiel, they described the life that he had lived for most of his life.
If this conference doesn’t make it a little easier for my people to access water, then it will have failed, he thought and continued with his rapporteur duties.
One year later, he was among the fifty thousand people who attended the historic twenty-first Conference of Parties (COP 21) in Paris. These people included the US President Barack Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping. They were part of the largest ever gathering of world leaders.
After two weeks of heated and intense negotiations, the Paris Climate Accord was finally agreed upon and signed on 12th December. It required developed and developing countries to limit their emissions to safe levels of 2C with an aspiration of 1.5C.
Tajiel was right there, to witness the birth of this accord. His fervent hope was that the Green Climate Fund that was part of the Paris Accord would result in actual funding of grassroots African organizations like Green Icon.
Tajiel worked with the Tanzanian Civil Society Forum on Climate Change for two years until 2016 when funding for the project ran out. Evidently, climate financing wasn’t just a challenge for youth organizations like green icon. Lack of climate funds was a gigantic boulder that was right in the middle of Africa’s climate resilience road. The Green Climate Fund was yet to blow up this boulder.
Now that he was out of a formal job Tajiel invested more time into Green Icon and other environmental initiatives. That same year in 2016, he volunteered as the Coordinator for Tanzania International Model UN – Youth of United Nations Association (YUNA), in Partnership with United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office (UNRCO) Tanzania.
This role enabled to him to play an active role in nurturing the international diplomacy skills of young people. His participation in the Lima and Paris conferences had shown him the immense power of international diplomacy. Africa needed to deploy this power much more strategically and consistently. That was the only way to secure substantial victories in the climate change space.
Tajiel has continued to navigate this climate space with skill and commitment. He has been to numerous climate meetings both locally and internationally. He remains committed to ensuring that international climate dialogue results in local climate resilience.
The dala dala (public transport mini-bus) was so close behind him that he could literally hear the driver’s conversation with a passenger. The driver was insisting that Simba was the best ever club not just in Tanzania, but the entire East Africa region. You must be drunk. The passenger laughed loudly. Yanga is by far the best team to grace the land of Tanzania. After all, it was also the oldest, having been founded in 1935.
As that conversation filtered into Tajiel’s ears, he also had to keep his eyes focused on the road ahead of him. There were dozens more dala dalas speeding on because it was rush hour in the morning so the more trips they made, the money they made. There were pedestrians either walking along the side of the road or waiting to cross the road; there were both posh and battered personal cars jostling for space and honking irritably at dala dalas. Then there was him, a thirty-one year old avid cyclist who braves Dar es Salaam’s crazy roads every day instead of sitting comfortably in one of those vehicles that he was now competing for space with. He was doing this to lower his carbon footprint. To what! Yes, to lower his carbon footprint. He started cycling more and using vehicles less in 2019 after giving a talk to secondary school students about climate change and how everyone should do more to lower their carbon footprints.
One evening after he had given such a talk, he went back home and started playing with his daughter Crown.
What am I doing to lower my carbon footprints? This question fell into his mind like a leaf falling softly into the forest ground.
It was as if Mahatma Gandhi spoke to him from the grave and asked him if he was the change that he wanted to see. After all, he was one of Tanzania’s most vocal and passionate young climate warriors.
I will start cycling much more because fossil fuels are resulting in a lot of emission of greenhouse gases. Just like the earlier question, these words came into his mind without prompting. And so just like that, he dusted his bike and cut down drastically on his usage of vehicles.
“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Tajiel says, “from Mwalimu Julius Nyerere our founding Father to Babu, my beloved grandfather.”
With those words, he jumps on his bike and speeds off after blowing a kiss to his daughter Crown.
Her smile lights up his heart. It is for her and future generations that he will keep up the climate fight.
He is a Creative Writer who believes in the limitless power of the pen. He has written several non-fiction and fiction books. Most recently, he was the Coordinating Lead Author of United Nations Environment Programme's Publication for Africa Youth entitled - Global Environment Outlook for Youth, Africa: A Wealth of Green Opportunities. Click here to download it.