Teaching Children to Care for the Environment in Uganda

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Heartivist Of The Week

50% of deaths from stroke and ischaemic heart disease in Uganda are caused by air pollution, WHO. 

“Engaging future generations in environmental care gives me hope. Climate action is something we all have to look for and work together,” Rachel Nakimuli, Founder of Climate Smart Children.

Everything we do has an indelible impact on others as well as on our surroundings although we may not see it because it can feel like a huge burden as the world can seem too big and taking care of it may feel like a huge endeavor. But great achievements are built on small actions, and taking care of our environment should be something incorporated joyfully into our everyday lives. Just like the Hindu Environmental Advocate, Physicist, Philosopher, and Writer Vandana Shiva once said: “You are not Atlas carrying the world on your shoulder. It is good to remember that the planet is carrying you.” For Rachel Nakimuli, the founder of Climate Smart Children, teaching youngsters to take care of our planet from an early age is the key to positive change and what inspired her to motivate elementary students to plant and care for over 300,000 trees in Uganda.

Rachel is a passionate environmental advocate and elementary teacher. Born and raised in Kampala, Uganda, she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Education and a postgraduate degree in Education Management from Kyambogo University.

“I enjoy working with children,” says Rachel. “My passion and interest in climate change was sparked because – as a science teacher – children ask many questions about Earth and they are eager to learn and work to protect the planet.” 

When Rachel noticed her students’ desire to get involved in taking care of their environment, she decided to create the Environmental Club at the Lotte Junior School where she works.

“In Kampala – the city where I live – there is a lot of disregard for the environment,” says Rachel. “There is a lot of deforestation, sometimes when you want to take children to parks there is nothing, and you don’t even see any animals around. Also, sometimes we do not have access to water sources, and the only water you can find is polluted because people dump rubbish there. All of this comes back to climate change and people not taking responsibility for our daily lives and you find that prices of goods are increasing as a result of climate change.”

Health Dangers Caused by Environmental Pollution in Uganda

Environmental pollution poses a threat to the planet and the life of every living creature – including human beings. In Uganda, a report made by the World Health Organization revealed that the air is 6 times more polluted than the quality guideline standards for particulate matter which causes many diseases and is responsible for 50% of the deaths from stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a country where 100% of its population lack clean fuels and technology for cooking.

As it is known, environmental pollution is a key factor in climate change. The WHO estimates – through information from an analysis by the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, 2018 – that by 2050 there will be 124 days per year when the temperature will exceed the 90% maximum threshold for that time of the year based on the period of 1961 to 1991 and this will generate 34 times more deaths. This is a major concern in a country where 75% of its deaths from diarrhea are caused by unsafe drinking water, sanitation, and inadequate hygiene; and where 81% of the population doesn’t have safe drinking water.

Fortunately, scientists from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change by the United Nations indicate that there are many “feasible and effective options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to human-caused climate change”. 

Furthermore, the government of Uganda which has committed to protecting its wetlands recognizes their importance to climate relief. Restoring over 47,000 hectares of degraded wetlands which benefit 13,100 households, and promoting sustainable practices as well as educating the community on the importance of these ecosystems will mitigate floods and droughts, water purification, and biodiversity conservation, according to the United Nations Development Programme.

Smart Climate Children

After the success of the Environmental Club at Lotte Junior Elementary, Rachel decided to expand her enthusiasm and work to other schools, and that is when the nonprofit organization, Smart Climate Children, was born.

“I got together with a team of like-minded teachers from other schools and we founded the Climate Smart Children initiative,” says Rachel. “We began with a tree planting project and through much work by 2023, we had already planted 300,000 trees in different areas.”

What began as a single-person labor transformed into an organization that has 3 board members and from 60 to 80 university students as volunteers who have worked together for 2 years teaching children environmental awareness and engaging them in planting and recycling projects. The first Smart Climate Children project started with 3 groups of 27 elementary students and now the nonprofit organization works with over 1,600 children from 7 school districts in Kampala.

“Planting trees and recycling were my first two initiatives and it was not an easy job. The community was not too responsive, people were saying, “We are hungry and you’re talking about the environment?”” recalls Rachel. “But through determination and hard work, you can see the results, you can see that you’ve been able to give back to Mother Nature, however small. This is what inspires me, and the hope that one day we shall have many people and many schools on board who subscribe to the Climate Smart Children initiatives.”

Motivating Children to Recycle

Another one of the Climate Smart Children initiatives is to encourage youngsters to understand the importance of recycling to mitigate climate change and to apply this knowledge to their everyday lives. To achieve this, Rachel developed a series of workshops to be implemented at low-income schools where there is a substantial amount of plastic waste generated so students, teachers, and parents could participate together to create their own Environmental Club and school recycling center.

To expand the program, Rachel decided to look for the funds they required to pay for the educational material, transportation fees, recycle bins, and more. As she expressed this need to her volunteers one of them mentioned that she had heard about The Pollination Project and how they provided seed funding for grassroots organizations. 

“I applied for The Pollination Project seed grant,” remembers Rachel. “We really felt motivated when we received the news about being chosen to get the funds. Our first feeling was excitement and motivation about the fact that someone believed in what we do and that someone would like to support us achieve this goal. We feel privileged and grateful for this opportunity.”

Through this initiative, Rachel and the Climate Smart Children team will work directly for around 6 weeks with over 6,000 students from 10 different schools located in the Wakiso and Kampala districts in Uganda to create awareness about environmental care in children so they can incorporate these practices in their lives at an early age and continue to teach them to the next generations.

“Recycling is almost unheard of by the communities where we work,” says Rachel. “Children don’t even know that you can separate the trash. They do not know that you can recycle cardboard – for example – and make it useful, just like plastic. But once they realize the impact they can have on the planet, they will enjoy being a part of the change.”

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The SDG Literacy Drive 3.0 has received funding from @ThePollinationProject! 🎉
This ambitious project aims to educate 10,000 children in NIgeria, focusing on marginalized communities, about:

✅ Sustainability
✅ Climate change
✅ UN Sustainable Development Goals

Through interactive programs and resources, they're empowering young minds to understand global challenges and take action locally. 
Their mission? To cultivate a generation of informed, engaged citizens committed to building a more sustainable and equitable world for all. 💚

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