Nyombi Morris is a 23-year-old Ugandan climate activist and social media manager for a climate justice nonprofit organization called Rise Up Movement.
Here, he reflects on his experience of growing up in a low-income community directly impacted by severe weather and plastic pollution — and how he started his journey toward his own climate activism.
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My name is Nyombi Morris. I was born on March 28, 1998, and I am a climate activist from Uganda. I'm also a social media manager at Rise Up Movement, a nonprofit organization founded in 2018 by climate justice activist Vanessa Nakate. Its mission is to fight climate change and amplify voices of climate activists in Africa.
The idea of a world where natural resources and people's lives are respected and put above profit matters so much to me. That's why I am here — to make that world a reality.
Throughout my childhood in Uganda, finding food, where to sleep, and getting an education was a struggle. That's why I didn't complete my studies, and why I haven't fulfilled my dream of becoming a humanitarian and a powerful news editor in my country.
I grew up with my mum and two siblings, a sister and a brother. My dad left us when I was 6 years old. He didn't die, he just disappeared with another woman. This meant that my mum — who couldn't afford the rent and didn't even have a single room in Kampala — had to look for every possible means so that we were taken care of.
She took us to a slum area called Luzira, where there were cheaper houses, and it was also near our grandma's home. From there, my mum became our father and mother at the same time, raising three young children. She had to look for food, and pay my school fees and rent. Luckily enough I performed very well in primary school and attained a sponsorship at a secondary school where I studied my O levels for free.
Nyombi Morris is a Ugandan climate activist and social media manager for a climate justice non-profit organization called Rise Up Movement.
After four years, my mum told me that she was not financially stable enough for me to continue, so she took me to an institute where I was given another bursary for two years. There I did my certificate in IT/Computer Science. I performed very well, but I never graduated because I couldn't pay the graduation fees, so I went back to pick up my transcript in January 2019.
During the time when we lived in Luzira we faced a lot of challenges from climate change. My mum would go and work with two kids on her back and I would be at school. We would come back to find all our things — like clothes and utensils —¸floating in flood water inside the house. We lost a great deal of property and money whenever it rained and we were not at home.
Eventually we reached a point when we had to remove the most important possessions like the television, radio, etc. which we took to our grandma's. The biggest challenge was that Luzira is next to Lake Victoria and whenever it rained heavily the lake got full — which meant that the people surrounding it were forced to move.
I'll never forget one night in November 2014. It started raining, the power went off, and water took over our room in the middle of the night. My mum woke me up to carry our clothes and books. She carried my siblings out of the house and with only a phone as a source of light we stood outside through the night. The next morning we went to our grandma's house. It was a little bit safer there as our house was almost falling over after heavy rains and floods.
It took me some time to realise the main cause of this flooding. Until one day when it started raining when I was outside washing utensils. I saw several people running quickly with buckets of garbage. They poured the garbage in the drainage system which was built to take away only water. This meant that the garbage would blocking the flow of the water and choking the drainage system.
The heavy rains were already overpowering the drainage system and we were facing floods. When I asked them, “Why are you doing this?” one person replied, “We can't burn this rubbish and even the company which we pay to come and collect this garbage is no longer coming. We tried to ask the government to help us. No one is listening to us so what can we do? Why don't we use this rain to take this rubbish away?”
I looked at them and I was speechless because somewhere, somehow, she had a point. As you may know, it's hard to find two to three people in my area who have had a chance to go to school. And even those who did were not taught about climate change, so people didn’t understand the impact of their behaviour. It was also hard for community members to separate plastics from their garbage and to find safer places to dispose of them. This is how I started thinking about the environment.
In 2019, after completing my IT course I had no job, so I was spending a lot of time watching television. One day I saw a news report about a girl who was standing in front of our parliament demanding that the government take action on climate change. I rushed to Facebook to start looking for her, and luckily enough she was in my friend list.
I sent her five messages requesting a meeting and after a few days she replied to me. Guess who that girl was? Vanessa Nakate. We met and discussed a great deal about climate change and its effects. I went back home thinking about it, and realised that it was what I had experienced growing up. In September 2019 I decided to become an activist. After inspiration from Vanessa Nakate I decided to start educating my community about climate change.
Becoming an activist has not been that easy in Uganda, as activism is dangerous work and often treated as a crime. In September 2020 parts of the Bugoma forest were cleared for use for sugarcane plantations. In response, I joined other concerned young people and came out to put pressure on the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA). We wanted themto tell us why they had approved the sale of our forest to a sugarcane company.
Shortly after the protest, five Twitter accounts were frozen including mine. It took us a month and a half until Twitter restored our accounts, after demands from different people on Twitter including Greta Thurnberg. I believe that the freezing of our accounts was a way of silencing us. When we got our accounts back we gave up on that forest. I gave up not because I wanted to, but because I lack security where I live and I was worried about what might happen to me. I had a feeling that my life was in danger.
On March 25, 2021, I went to my usual protest. I had joined the global movement started by Greta Thunberg called Fridays for Future. I usually go on Friday, but that week I went on Thursday with my brother. On this particular day, I had stood for only five minutes on the roadside with my placard when a police truck came up.
The officers jumped off the truck, grabbed me, and took me and my brother to the truck where they started questioning me, asking, “Who are you working for?” I told them I didn't work for anyone and that I am a climate activist who is trying to teach people what can be done about rising temperatures and global warming.
I said “Everyone carries a water bottle because it’s too hot, our forests are being sold, our natural resources have been destroyed, so I am demanding climate justice. I am not political and I don't belong to any political party. You can see my placard.”
After I explained, one officer slapped me, another one kicked me in the stomach and said, “Don't you see that you're inciting violence?” and demanded that I give them my phone. I started pleading with them, asking that they don’t take me to prison. My brother had already started weeping. When they saw people had started gathering, they released us.
They told me to go home, and threatened that the next time they see us they'll take us to maximum prison and that we will be there forever. They confiscated my placard and my phone, so now I am working on replacing both. I'll change the location of where I've been protesting, because I fear they might arrest me. But I will not stop protesting.
The thing I really want to see is for leaders to change their behaviour and start to value people's lives. Leaders have failed to treat climate change as a crisis, and I think it is because they believe that it will never affect them. The solution to climate change is very easy. Decision makers must change their behaviours, they must come talk to people like they did during election campaigns and 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 are 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 own voice. That the more noise you make, the more accountability you demand from your leaders, the more the world will change for the better. That's why it's hard to see me giving up.
In the future, I plan of starting a recycling project in Uganda called Used Plastics, which will be focused mostly on fighting plastic pollution. I want to encourage recycling because we can make new products with used plastics and give them a new life with re-use. Right now I am on social media, mostly on Instagram, trying to build social media audiences and mobilising people on how to fight plastic waste.
I chose plastics because in recent years many activists (including me) have been preaching to people to plant and grow more trees and protect our forests. So far I've planted at least 100 trees in two years, but I have ignored one of the most dangerous things on our planet and that is plastic waste.
Plastic waste takes very long to fully decompose, it can take decades. However it is quickly broken down into microplastics. An October 2020 report by the United States Environmental Protection Agency showed that plastic waste doesn't only kill marine and sea animals, but is now found in every part of the food chain from drinking water to salt. In the same report, the author said there is concern that plastics in the ocean will triple in the next decade if we don't consider the role that science and technology can play in understanding and providing solutions to long-time issues affecting the animals living in and above the water.
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