Last week, the world celebrated Black in Nature. Twitter was lit with the #BlackinNature, #BlackBirdersWeek, #BlackAfindSTEM and #BlackAndSTEM hashtags. This important activity highlighted the interests, and experiences of black and other people of colour (POC) in nature. I was unaware of the threats, harassments, and dangers that POC encounter in their quest to use and contribute to nature management. As one Guardian writer put it “Being black while in nature: You’re an endangered species”!

I thought that probably explains why I hardly find black people visiting and enjoying nature. However, there was something unsatisfactory about this explanation. I grew up in rural Ghana (West Africa) and I have visited (through work and research) most of the reserves and parks in Ghana. Yet, I do not recollect people taking to nature as I have seen in Europe and China. Although, I have had the opportunity of traveling to some of the nicest parks in other African countries (e.g. Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, Kruger National Park in South Africa), I don’t remember meeting many black people on these visits (except the local staff). So why don’t we find many black Africans taking to nature? Here, I draw on my personal experiences to provide some sort of an answer.

I suppose most Africans have intimate connection to nature during their early childhood. As an underdeveloped continent, you can find nature everywhere. I am sure most of us (at least my generation) spent time working with our parents on farms (rather unwillingly), fetching firewood or collecting mushrooms, wild fruits, and nuts. On weekends or during vacations, we will spend time digging for earthworms that we subsequently used for fishing. Swimming and canoeing were an integral part of our unsupervised exposure to nature. We would also go hunting for birds and, when we were in particularly naughty mood, chase after lizards and dragonflies. Our elementary schools were surrounded with trees, some form of wooded lands, and school gardens. I remember we would sometimes chase after grasshoppers all over the school football park.

When, how, and why did we lose touch with nature? Perhaps there was no conscious effort to inculcate love and care of nature in us during childhood.  It was not because people did not appreciate the value of nature. Clearly, local customs and practices in most African communities suggest a good understanding of human-nature balance. For instance, we had many taboo days where people were forbidden to go fishing or farming. Shifting cultivation was extensively practiced in many communities suggesting people already understood the value of allowing degraded farm soils to rehabilitate. However, the relevance of these customs and the need for an individual to stay in contact with nature were not strongly articulated.

Clearly a big difference was apparent in how children and adults related to nature. For kids from my background, nature offered the cheapest and easiest opportunities for playing. In contrast, most adult engaged in nature-based livelihood activities (farming, fishing, forestry). Thus, it was rare to find an adult that took an interest in furthering our connection to nature. How will a father spend his whole day in the farm and then in his spare time go with kids to watch birds or collect insects? Thus, most of us lost the excitement for nature as we progressed through our teens. This was also strongly influenced by the narratives in our communities. Kids were taught to aspire to become doctors, bankers, engineers. Being a farmer or taking interest in nature (going to the “bush”) was considered as dirtying yourself and a “low-life style”. Thus, for most of us, we simply lost a place for or concept of nature in our teens and early adulthood.

There is also an element of biophobia (i.e. the fear of the natural world) driven by local narratives. For instance, forests, woodlands, and bushes are viewed as being ‘unclean’, archaic, evil, and dangerous. They are conceived as being infested with criminals, snakes, mosquitoes, and “evil spirits”. These narratives put a strong friction between the concepts of nature and development. For most people, the expectation of a developed place is that in which nature is “completely” replaced with infrastructure (be it road, buildings, or concrete floors). This explains why many people remove vegetations around their houses and rather maintain bare grounds. It is also the reason why most household resist the planting of trees around their properties.

Many of us will stay on this path, never reconnecting to nature. This is particularly true for people struggling financially. It is unlikely that any struggling parent will cultivate the love of nature in their kids. Obviously, you cannot expect a parent or individual struggling to provide basic needs for their families to be concerned with their kid’s experience with nature. For them, there is no value in such an activity. In contrast, families doing well financially tend to re-connect with nature. Such families become interested in planting trees, having home gardens, or spending more time outdoors.  

But the lack of personal connection or interest in nature by most Africans, particularly adults, is unfortunate for two reasons. Firstly, adults play important roles in sustaining the bond between children and nature. The lack of interest in nature by adults will trickle down to children such that more children will lose their intimate connections with nature. This is regrettable because substantial body of scientific literature has shown that intimate contact with nature during early childhood improves the growth and development of children. Children who are exposed to nature seems to perform better in school, have better physical well-being and peer-peer relationships. Taking children to nature greatly improves their enthusiasm, concentration, and interest. Its rather sad that most children may never experience an intimately connection with nature.

Secondly, the lack of interest in nature breeds apathy towards environmental concerns. Africa is fraught with enormous environmental problems: desertification, biodiversity loss, deforestation and savanna degradation, and climate change. Addressing these challenges requires a critical mass of people with deep connections with nature that can push for policies that preserves our natural environments. At the individual level, becoming interested and having a connection with nature seems fundamental to developing empathy towards nature protection.

Regardless of where you live, you can find and establish intimate connections with nature. You can also help to grow the bond between children and nature in your community. You will be amazed how many different animals live in the undeveloped plot next to your house. If you never walked along the stream in your neighborhood, try to do so and while at it listen to the beautiful melodies of the birds perching on the few isolated trees. Or maybe you have never taken your kids to collect insects, chase butterflies or figure out what species of animals they can find in their neighborhood. You will be amazed how happy such an experience will be for them. Perhaps you can look again at the plants establishing over the dumpsite and the animals living among them. You can also teach your kids to propagate and care for plants at home. There are probably few interesting local parks close to where you live that you never considered. Find out about these nature areas around you. Visit these places and encourage others to do so. These simple activities will be great for the psychological well-being of your children and also help sustain these nature parks.

There are many ways we can protect our African natural heritage, but it starts with connecting with the natural environment around us!  If you are black African and in love with nature, share your experience (in pictures) with me. These are few pictures of me in nature!

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