Journalism in the service of society

Sandrine Uwase Ndahiro: Conversation with a young scholar

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‘From conducting my research, the common thread I am seeing regarding protecting natural resources is the need for those in power to acknowledge and fully understand the irreversible effects of ecological damage. The climate crisis’s seriousness is still debatable across various African countries as other issues, such as war, take precedence over the ongoing climate crisis’

LET us start with a few questions that may help set the tone for a virtual conversation between Ms. Sandrine Ndahiro and myself. We met during the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS 2023) which took place in Cologne, Germany. 

Firstly, how do you navigate the essence of a conference that had over 2000 participants from over 80 countries? Secondly, how does anyone evaluate the effectiveness of such a conference that mirrored an African market? In response to the first question, I would suggest that randomly searching for scholars who made presentations at the conference may be a formular. In effect, finding who to talk to me without too much stress is not like throwing dice but more of invoking the African spirit of luck in Europe. The answer to the second question will be briefly provided by the scholar who made available her time. 

Sandrine is a third-year English Ph.D. Her research employs theoretical frameworks associated with the field of post-colonial studies to read the environmental crisis unfolding in Africa from an Africanist cultural perspective. Sandrine is also a recent recipient of the prestigious Irish Research Council postgraduate scholarship. She is also the co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Unapologetic, a multidisciplinary, literary, cultural, and artistic response to the social issues and creative opportunities of contemporary Ireland.

Editor’s note: A quick look at the website of the magazine gives a rundown of what they set out to do. The site informs that “Unapologetic is about creating a medium that showcases the cultural richness of the multiple heritages that define contemporary Ireland but are unrepresented in modern discussion. The first issue of Unapologetic is called ‘Change Makers’. We asked contributors to focus on historical figures, moments, and aspirations that informed their understanding of contemporary Ireland.”

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PLEASE tell us briefly what your research is about. 

 As stated above I have spent three years as a PhD student in the English Department at the University of Limerick, Ireland. My research addresses how contemporary African cultural texts (self-referential, fictional, filmic, and photographic) engage with and represent the morphological, economic, socio-political, and physical impact of climate change in the continent. I do so by considering how literature and art address the more recent environmental degradation and the scales of devastation in Africa. 

What do you think African countries can do to protect the land, air and water? 

 This is a complex question with multiple possible angles. My research so far has seen tension between local governments across African countries in addressing the ongoing climate crisis. From conducting my research, the common thread I am seeing regarding protecting natural resources is the need for those in power to acknowledge and fully understand the irreversible effects of ecological damage. The climate crisis’s seriousness is still debatable across various African countries as other issues, such as war, take precedence over the ongoing climate crisis. I am working on Wangari Maathai’s initiative of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya acts as a perfect example of local initiatives that encourage rural communities who bear witness to the slow violence of their environment to work now and not rely on those in power. Community-led initiatives like GBM show practical solutions to slow the effects of environmental damage before it reaches a point of no return. So instead of looking at what governments can do, my current research has shifted my thinking to see the power of individuals and communities fighting for change.

Editor’s note: A quick search on the internet reveals that Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 and she passed on in 2011. As stated earlier she was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. As well as having been featured in a number of books, she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of a documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai which was produced by Marlboro Productions in 2008.

Furthermore, “Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, East Africa. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. Dr. Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.

Does your work in any way intersect with science? How do you navigate the scientific terms as a scholar of English studies

 I have come across scientific terms concerning climate change throughout my studies. I came across such terms when trying to understand the description of climate change from multiple disciplines. For example, scientific terms attempt to measure the alarmingly fast rate of the climate crisis. My literary training makes me uniquely able to engage with scientific terms and relate them to theoretical frameworks. For example, when trying to understand the speed at which the ongoing climate crisis operates, I could relate it to thinkers like Rob Nixon’s work on slow violence, who frames this change as part of high-speed planetary change.

Would it be correct to submit that the concept of slow violence appears to relate to violence that is not spectacular and spontaneous. So, what in your own view is slow violence in relation to the environment.

In my view, slow violence concerning the environment is described as out of sight for those unfamiliar with the ancestral landscape. This type of violence sees locals bear the brunt of ongoing ecological catastrophes, and their experiences are misrepresented and often downplayed due to the long history of violence between the West and Africa, which stipulates that Africa is a place of instability and violence without distinguishing the different modes of violence. In this case, slow violence in relation to the environment.

What role does literature and films have to play in resolving the environmental crises humanity has found itself in?

African writers, scholars, filmmakers, and artists in regions like Kenya, Niger Republic, Nigeria, to name a few, are ensuring to situate the African subject in conversation with the temporal framework of the future. For more than a decade now, writers, filmmakers, and artists from across Africa have been addressing the effects of environmental degradation in ways that illuminate the scale of devastation in the lived reality of Africans while also providing nuanced representations of everyday coping mechanisms for surviving and even imagining a future beyond this devastation. Literature and film from a distinctive African perspective emphasise the need to understand how the current climate crisis requires the inclusion of cultural mechanisms that are bearing witness to the climate crisis across different African regions.

What was your impression of the last European Conference on African Studies

The title of my presentation was “Everyday Environmentalism: Navigating hell on earth in African films. My paper engages with the scholarly discourse of Anthropocene and postcolonialism by looking at the African continent’s unfolding but overlooked and misunderstood environmental issues. The ecological crisis becomes another edition of Africa’s cultural phenomenon of constant mass destruction and a lifetime of suffering. Those sufferings portray an African doomed future. I critically analysed Idrissou Mora-Kpai’s Arlit, deuxième Paris (2005) and Wanrui Kahiu’s Pumzi (2009) by looking at how African bodies are the best indicators of ecological damage as they live in proximity of an eroding environment. Africans’ day-to-day bearing brunt of ecological catastrophe resembles near-apocalyptic scenarios of living on ‘hell on earth’. Their lived experiences adapt and shape alternative futures.

I must say that this year was my first time attending the European Conference on African Studies (ECAS). This was one of my favorite conferences that I have attended as an African scholar in Ireland, which is predominantly white. It is sometimes challenging to find people who look like me or are enthusiastic about my research. Attending this conference, I got to meet so many inspirational African thinkers that excited me about my research topic and the possibility of future collaboration, etc. The conference was an excellent place for early career researchers to connect and glimpse how their research has the potential to contribute to the growing visible presence of thinkers working on the continent.

Was there any session that resonated with you?

 The conference did a fantastic job of having a variety of sessions that all dealt with the question of African futurity, ecocriticism, and decolonization. Sessions on African literature, the environment, and others that focused on indigenous knowledge resonated with me as they helped frame my current thinking. I got new insights and language concerning my current thinking.

Editor’s note: The Global South Center was the host department that organized the conference. The Center “is characterized by rapid socioeconomic, cultural, and political change whose impacts are felt throughout the world”. According to the conference website there were about 1400 papers presented across 245 panels/roundtables.


The conference brought together scholars from different stages in the career. Ideas flowed freely but it is certain that the major impact of the conference may take years to be fully felt. Ms. Ndahiro is an emergent scholar to watch out for in years to come.

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