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David Kunene of Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa wearing his Laudato Si' t-shirt at COP28 in Dubai. Photo by author.
Catholic Re-Visions

The African Youth Living Pope Francis’ Dream

Youth were not very welcome at the table. It was quite common for them to be referred to and accept that they are leaders of tomorrow or the next generation… How can we be the next generation when we’re already here [right now]?

This past December, I had the great privilege of attending COP28, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference held in Dubai. As noted previously on this blog here and here, Pope Francis released his recent apostolic exhortation, Laudate Deum, in the run-up to COP28 as a spiritual commentary on global climate negotiations in his political role as leader of the Holy See. Though Pope Francis was, unfortunately, too sick to attend COP28 in-person, he still addressed the gathering remotely. COP28 was notable for its emphasis on religious activism, as it featured the first-ever “Faith Pavilion” to “demonstrate the pivotal role of faith communities in tackling the climate crisis.” It was here where I met David Mûnene, programs manager of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA), who graciously agreed to this interview (printed in an abridged format).

David Mûnene (DM)

My name is David Mûnene with the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa. It’s a youth-formed, youth-led, Catholic-based organization. We work with young Catholics and non-Catholics, as well, across Africa in 10 countries now, and we are based in Nairobi. […]

James Padilioni, Jr. (JP)

I spotted you here at the UN Climate Change Conference because you were wearing a t-shirt that read “African youth living Laudato sí.”  How did you get involved with this organization? And how does Laudato sí inform the work you engage?

DM

CYNESA was idealized in 2012….we had already started working around setting up an organization because we had realized there’s a huge gap between faith in the Catholic Church and what the Catholic Church has been teaching for millennia vis a vis the actions of Catholic people. Especially back then, the space for young people was quite limited. Youth were not very welcome on the table. It was quite common for them to be referred to and accept that they are leaders of tomorrow or the next generation. But we came in and challenged that. How can we be the next generation when we’re already here [right now]? When my founder and now executive director Alan Ottaro came up with the idea, the reason why I got involved in this was not because I’m an environmentalist. In fact, I like to describe myself as an outdated computer scientist. Because I studied computer science, but I didn’t get to practice. […]

Daily program schedule for the Faith Pavilion at COP28

But fast forward, Alan Ottaro then asked me to organize the summit and he said “but you are CYNESA” and that’s when I said, “ok, I will help,” and that’s how I got myself in the space not knowing anything back then about the environment except three things: 1) growing trees/planting trees, 2) collecting litter, and 3) Wangarĩ Maathai, the Nobel laureate from Kenya — may she rest in peace.

Those are the only three things I knew. [But] I don’t like staying in the dark and not knowing stuff. [So I] kept reading, kept asking questions, engaging…

JP

It seems Pope Francis was really involved in leading up to COP 28 [in December 2023], trying to influence the agenda with the release of Laudate Deum a month before, and he met with [COP 28] President Al-Jaber at the Vatican and [the Pope] was supposed to come here to Dubai the first week [of the conference] but, unfortunately, was too sick to make the trip.

How do you interpret the Vatican’s actions? From my perspective in the United States, I found it encouraging that the Vatican was taking on its dual role as an actual state as well as the head of the Church, since diplomatic crises had prevented the United States’ Climate Action Envoy, John Kerry, from meeting with the Chinese government for over 18 months in the lead-up to COP28 (the two biggest nation-state negotiators at COP). I’m curious what you think about that.

DM

I think the dimension that has been growing very well is the Catholic actors [here in this] space. And with the accession of the Holy See [to being a UN party] on 4th of October last year on the Solemnity of Saint Francis Overseas. It’s a given a whole new perspective…It’s not the Church that has access to [UN] parties. The [Vatican] state is very distinctive from the Church, even though people on the ground might not know the difference….Pope Francis is still head of government, but he is the Holy Father.

[…]

I think most people might think this is the first time the Pope has gotten involved in [climate] politics, but it’s on record from the 10th Executive secretary of UNFCCC, Christiana Figueres, that Laudato si’ was very instrumental in driving the [nation-] states and parties into adopting the Paris Agreement. Laudato si’ was the very first time that science, indigenous knowledge, and [Catholic] faith were put together in one document that spoke prophetically to truth and light. [Those who truly received its message] felt inclined to take action. That’s why I say the Vatican is the “smallest-biggest” state. Small, perhaps geographically, but in terms of size, population wise, it’s the biggest.

[…]

If we didn’t have Laudato si’,  I think we would have a less-ambitious Paris Agreement and I think all the things we are discussing now would be a big challenge. But beyond that, [Pope Francis] has gone to ensure there is an interaction between parties and non-state actors. For example, when he couldn’t make it to Paris for the [2015] Climate March, he sent a pair of shoes instead. That was historic because it’s also the first time in a very long time…that a Pope has been this in touch with the lowest person in the community and this in touch with the highest person in the community as well, from a massively merciful, compassionate and empathetic perspective.

[…] Before Laudato si’ [to build a strategy for our climate actions], we would go to [political] documents. Then go to the scientific side and then try to scavenge the Internet to find what indigenous science says. Now we don’t have to do that. Laudato si’ has made our work easy, I can just reference [it] … the more you study the document, the more eye-opening it is, and the more you realize it’s almost like the Bible.

Our work in CYNESA is organized in three areas. We infused Laudato si’ in all three. The first is formation and awareness of creation. Initially we used to call it education and awareness creation. But we [changed the name because], no education is terminal, especially with young people. […] because it got the richness of formation in the Catholic Church…

Secondly, our young people who complete the basic foundation [program] — and they don’t have to be Catholic — are reintroduced to Catholic social teaching principles and the work of CYNESA and Laudato si’ […] Catholic social teaching principles are rooted in scripture. Therefore, you cannot have Catholic social principles without the Holy Scriptures, the Bible. But then Catholic social teaching principles have passed on through documents, and one of the documents is Laudato si’. […] [We tell the students] “Go into the Bible. Do your research into science as well, and the local context.” And when you are presenting these four last chapters of Laudato si’, you must link them to cover the social teaching principles, especially on care for creation and priests and the preferential option for the poor. That is the basic minimum that is required. And thirdly, we promote sustainable consumption and production and lifestyle choices, not just through words advocacy, but also through action.

[…]

JP

Can you tell me about some of the campaigns you have undertaken?

DM

For example, we notice that plastics are a menace in our communities. We have taken a stand in our organization, we do not accept plastic bottled water in CYNESA since 2017. When we are going…to organize a conference at a venue, that’s the first thing we ask…. “Can you not give us [bottled water]?” That plastic bottled water, for example…. It’s a harm on biodiversity. It’s a harm on ourselves, for example, we understand now from science that turtles and various sea animals cannot tell [the difference between] the plastic bottle cap from plankton, and so they eat and they swallow the plastic that is washed away from land to the ocean, and then they starve to death. But even on the human side. We are like. “Water is essential.” We don’t have a lot of it. I have lived in an informal settlement and I know what water crisis looks like. I grew up in a village where we still don’t have tap water to date, despite being very close to the cosmopolitan and the metropolitan areas. […] One liter of plastic bottled water in my country was more expensive than a liter of kerosene. And Kenya has abundant waters, but we don’t have oil. So how is that possible? You know, it didn’t make sense to us.

[…]

And yet, water in our faith is divine. It’s a mystery….When we are forming our young people and teaching them about water, we tell them [to] look at it beyond baptism and into the story of creation. [The Bible] doesn’t say when water was created. It goes like “in the beginning –”

JP

The spirit is hovering over the waters already, right?

DM

Hovering over the water, so is this beginning the real beginning or is there another beginning where water was [created]? And so this mystery is something we have used to connect Laudato si’ and to translate it into action on the ground. […]

JP

I’m curious to hear, if you could sketch out a vision of a future that is actually desirable and sustainable. Sometimes in sustainability discourses and in climate justice, we have apocalyptic visions of dystopian futures that motivate us [because] we don’t want that to happen. But what do we actually want to happen? We need to create…desirable visions of a future that is the better world and…try to, at least, help people imagine [the future] a little bit more concretely in different ways. So, if you could close your eyes and imagine the world-to-be, what would you love to see happen?

DM

I visualize Hebrews 11:1. I visualize what is faith. And I see the words “hope of things unseen.” The things that I have not seen and I hope for, is a world wherein before I take a decision or an action, I’m considering the other before I consider myself. What’s the impact of my actions, my words, my thoughts, on the most vulnerable in my community? And vulnerability should not be translated to economic poverty.

[…]

More specifically, I’m working and fundraising and campaigning for a local school in my country called St. Anne’s Secondary School – Lioki. The school was started by missionaries. And the infrastructure they have is barely adequate. It is disheartening to see the girls [go to Mass] in two shifts…in the same school, and they are both 1,100 girls, because their hall is too small and cannot accommodate them. That when you want to have sessions, let’s say with the national examination candidates, you have to split them in shifts….That the buildings, their dining halls are too tiny. They can hardly find space to eat. They have again to eat in shifts. Yet in my culture, and in many other cultures as well, eating together builds the sense of communion. And…the Catholic faith also demonstrates [this] with the Eucharistic celebration. So I hope we can be able to build infrastructure for that school… I’m really committed to making sure that we don’t just have adequate infrastructure, but that we have adequate green and sustainable infrastructure. In the 21st century, those girls take cold showers in the morning because they don’t have a water heating system. In the 21st century, they [use] salty water because they don’t have properly piped water….They don’t have mobility, they don’t have transportation. They only have one 62-seater bus that is quite old, more than 20 years old, and when they need to go for educational and academic experiences and also extracurricular, they have to make a sacrifice, some have to go, some have to be left. So I wish that, maybe by the end of 2024 on December 31st, we can have, at least, a solar heating system in that school for the girls, and that will be Laudato si’ in action, transforming the lives of young people at a very young age of 14…to 18.

[…] The Kingdom of God, from where I [see] it is very keen on the poor. It’s not just [keen on the] poor, but viciously protective of the poor. So I envision a situation where people will not see the world in terms of geographical boundaries. They will see it as one uniform, common home whose sustenance depends on my individual action, and [whose] performance depends on how well I perform as an individual. People should also know that spirituality is connected.

[….]

I envision a future where action precedes texts and texts can [be] read from action. That when we meet in a COP…we will meet to celebrate achievements, and not to negotiate global stocktake. There is a sense of reckless abundance at individual level, which translates to the community and of course, the internal deserts of our hearts have increased, that’s why the external deserts are growing. That would be what I would imagine, that’s what I would envision.

That’s the personal dream I have.

JP

Thank you. That’s a great Catholic re-vision. I hope we all get there together.

DK

Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure. I hope we can all do this together from a perspective of faith grounded in solidarity, especially with the poor.

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