#YPP2020 Spotlight | Driving Social Change through Discomfort, Presence, and Lived Experience

As a participant in this year’s cohort of the youth policy program, we spoke with Njoki Mburu to learn more about the issues and communities that drive her interest in public policy and why she sees discomfort in new spaces as an opportunity for meaningful change.

Njoki was born in Kenya and has lived in Germany and Canada. Inspired by her grandparents who are smallholder farmers, and with a degree in International Development, she is passionate about advocating for the rights of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. A profound writer and storyteller, with an interest in theatre performance, Njoki brings wisdom and grounded energy into this year’s cohort that we’re so grateful for.

LEVEL: Njoki, tell us why you decided to be a part of the youth policy program.

NM: I want to be involved in collaborating with farmers on securing their rights by implementing policy. I think as much frustration as I have—I have a lot of frustration with the Kenyan government—I’m also aware governments are agents of change that have a lot of influence on people’s livelihoods. I feel it’s necessary to do this work, especially to support people like my grandparents.

LEVEL: In your bio, you say: “I have had to question the ideologies, behaviours and identities that have influenced my growing, thinking and belonging. These tensions continue to inform my daily being—challenging me to live in spaces without searching for ‘home’.” Can you share what you mean by this?

NM: I’ve lived in Kenya, Germany, and Canada. All were vastly dynamic and interesting. It’s been really life-changing, especially when I was in Germany. To go from a Catholic boarding school in Kenya to an international, liberal school with an ecological focus was a big transition.

Keeping these experiences in mind, what I mean by ‘tension’ is the feeling and situation of holding conversations in spaces where my personal values may not align with someone else or whatever the “code” of that place is. I like being able to think about why we have different opinions and saying things in different ways. I like being in spaces that promote different conversations. It’s important to have those conversations with respect, otherwise we miss out on opportunities to grow and learn.

LEVEL: How does this ‘tension’ live within your aspirations?

NM: This tension is why I want to focus my career on bringing smallholder farmers, corporations, and governments (who often want to speak over the farmers and take over their land) together. I want to be in that space.

Most people in sub-Saharan Africa work in agriculture and at the same time, we’re in a world rapidly changing because of climate change. Our governments are so free willingly giving up land to the highest bidder. I want to collaborate with smallholder farmers in fighting for their land through policy and being in those political circles on their behalf. I want to stop these land grabs and stop governments from infringing on forests and national parks to create more farming land that just get sold off to corporations who don’t have an interest in the local economy.

I want to see smallholder farmers have legal deeds to their land, especially those who are indigenous to their countries and all over sub-Saharan Africa. I also want to see the acknowledgment of the ancestral owners of the land. White British settlers own large hectares of land and then you see farmers go into debt—paying more than what they earn—and many women especially (including widows and teen girls) are having to endure abuse to sustain themselves because they don’t have the capital or ownership of land.

LEVEL: In your own words, why does it matter to have young people’s voices around the table?

NM: The fact that we are such great numbers across the world is itself a reason to have young people at the table. For many countries such as mine, the largest population is youth. If we’re not building institutions, laws, and policies that are informed by youth, then the future wouldn’t be adaptive to the needs, requirements, and concerns we have. At the same time, involving youth shows an understanding of our lived experience and that itself is enough to inform profound changes. We can’t just ignore someone who’s 16 years old just because they’re young. Although a politician may be older, it doesn’t mean they know more, and it doesn’t mean we can’t work together. It shows a willingness for intergenerational guidance and thinking sustainably.

LEVEL: What changes would you like to see that would enable young people to be around the table more?

NM: I hope for dignified education for every person. Education doesn’t have to come from classrooms and degrees. I hope for a shift in a schooling system that operates in giving credibility to people who’ve worked on the land and have done research through experience (that would otherwise have to happen in labs). At the same time, I want to see an acknowledgment that access to internet and devices is a right. We need to dignify and provide access to education and not depend on how much they have in their pockets.

LEVEL: Before we end, let’s revisit your bio again where you say: “…the intentions I hold and the actions I pursue ought to be informed by history, grounded in the ‘now’ and part of a kind yet radical future.” Can you expand a bit more on this and how this affects your work?

NM: Over the past few years, I’ve come across peers who have been so curious to learn their history, their family history and larger political struggles that have affected their history. This has put me in the space of questioning what I know. I don’t know a lot about my own history in Kenya but my degree in International Development has taught me that reductive approaches have led to disaster. People come in and propose this or that and they think they’re doing such good work, only to leave and find the people they’ve impacted continue to struggle and have to adapt to suit what white saviours have done. If I don’t come from a place of understanding history, then I’m perpetuating this reductive approach.

‘Groundedness in the now’ is a reminder to be more mindful—it’s something I’ve only just recently learned. It’s about living in the present. It takes away my anxiety, nervousness, and self-doubt and helps to quiet my mind.

Professor Wangari Maathai, who I’ve looked up to since I was eight years old, once quoted Nelson Henderson who said: “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade we do not expect to sit.” I may collaborate with people on projects whose impact I will not live to see fully, but I have to set an intention that this work will be kind to people and planet in the long term. That intention is so fulfilling.