DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A Senegalese teenager is struggling to bring the youth movement against climate change to his home country, hampered by low public interest and religious beliefs, which even led to him being assaulted while campaigning door-to-door.
Yero Sarr, 18, a student at the main university in the capital Dakar, was inspired by a TV news report a year ago about 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Thunberg began skipping classes on Fridays in August 2018 to protest outside the Swedish parliament against government inaction on climate change, sparking a global movement.
“I immediately told myself it wasn’t her job to lead the fight. If we Africans are suffering the most from climate change and Europeans lead the fight for us, that’s a problem,” Sarr said.
He set up a personal Twitter account to share news about climate change, and then last month launched the Senegalese branch of the youth climate movement, “Fridays for Future”.
Last Friday, about 4 million people joined Thunberg’s mission by marching in cities around the world, including hundreds on the streets of Nairobi and Johannesburg.
But in Senegal’s seaside capital and neighboring countries in West Africa, the protests were small or non-existent.
“The problem is just that the message hasn’t gotten out yet,” said Sarr.
Climate change is rarely discussed by the Senegalese public or in local media, he said, and only international journalists have been interested in covering his nascent movement.
“I don’t know why (locals) don’t take this seriously, but we’re in Africa. They probably have other concerns,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from his hometown of Thies.
Senegal, like its neighbors, suffers from a crumbling coastline and worsening floods and droughts, with scientists saying West Africa is one of the regions hit hardest by climate change.
So far, Fridays For Future Senegal has only about 230 followers on Twitter and their largest march drew 30 to 40 people, said Sarr - but he is not discouraged.
When classes start up again in October after the summer holiday, he plans to spread the word.
Beyond lack of awareness, the main obstacle is religion, said Sarr. Senegal is more than 90% Muslim.
“People say that everything that happens with the climate is the will of God. That’s what they have in their heads,” he said.
He was hit in the face while campaigning recently by a man who accused him of opposing divine will, he said.
Until the public starts to show more interest, Sarr plans to ask for help from the United Nations and international human rights groups to grow his movement, but he does not want that to be the long-term plan.
“It is really up to us to talk more about this, because we are the most impacted (by climate change),” he said.
Reporting by Nellie Peyton; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org