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The Boy Asked: “Can You Teach Us About Climate Change?”

Reflections on teaching young people in village of Senchi in Eastern Region of Ghana in West Africa in August 2023.

After teaching the young people how to see their world magnified, I offered to answer any of their questions, and told them to ask me about anything. One boy asked what type of classes and training he needs to become a pilot. Others wanted to know how old I was, as is typical when working with any young people that you have never met before. They wanted to know if I was married or had children. They wanted to know where the United States is, so I drew an impromptu world map on my white board (I could use more practice drawing world maps). I explained I lived in the Rocky Mountains where there are four seasons and lots of snow in the winter. I shared a photo of myself cross country skiing in the snow.

Showing the girls a photo of me cross country skiing at Spring Gulch with Mount Sopris in the background. They have never experienced snow.

The boy in black and white (center) who asked me to explain climate change.

The most thought-provoking question of the whole group was from a boy who asked me to explain climate change. After asking him a couple questions about what he already knew about climate change, I quickly realized that he genuinely did not know much about it. Immediately I felt I had the opportunity (and responsibility) to try to break it down into ideas and concepts hopefully some of these kids could understand. It’s important to know that throughout most of the initial hand lens inquiry activity, everything I was saying was being translated by a 16- or 17-year-old boy into the native language. When I began to explain climate change, he sat back and just listened very carefully and did not translate anything. And it became clear, based on the body language of the young people, that they did in fact understand what I was explaining.

Senchi village young people gathered under the mango tree to learn from me, Sarah Johnson.

It was the most unique climate change teaching experience that I have had in my career so far. There I was standing in front of group of over 20 West African children in their very poor village in a third world developing country; the Global South. And I am from the United States: one of the wealthiest, powerful, most consumptive countries and biggest contributors of greenhouse gases per capita to the planet.

For all these kids sitting in front of me, I’m not sure of all the ideas and contexts I represented in their minds. Later I began to understand that I most likely represented money, power, possibility, learning, a brighter future, and many other things that I will never be fully aware of.

As I began to explain climate change, I felt the gravity, significance, and opportunity this moment in time created and I chose my words slowly. Now after reflecting on this experience more, I’m not sure how many of these young people had enough background understanding or context to feel the weight of this conversation between me, the climate science educator woman from the Global North, and themselves as resilient adaptable people of the Global South. And perhaps they did indeed.

It was interesting that few of the people in the crowd, including the adults, could name changes in their weather patterns over the last 20 years. But then I realized that they were very few people in the circle, who were more than 20 years old. I am curious to have a similar conversation with elders of the village to hear what changes they have noticed. I’m also curious to learn more about if they get regular access to national and regional news coverage of extreme weather events and climate change impacts in West Africa. There’s so much more context I would like to better understand.

Senchi young people and my travel partner Cheryl from New Zealand under the mango tree.

I did my best to try to explain to these kids that their use of fossil fuels (gasoline) to drive their motor bikes and old worn-out small cars is not the problem causing climate change; rather it’s the fault of the very rich overly consumptive countries, like my own. I found myself saying at least twice that ‘it is not right, it is not fair, and that it’s not OK’ that the rest of the world’s greenhouse gas pollution has the biggest effect on these kids’ future, their community, their food, and the local bioregion. These beautiful young people with their big, beautiful, brown to almost black eyes, minds ready to learn, were sitting there and all I could sense was their strong desire to learn and and have a bright future.

Myself holding the toddler and Aziz next to me in the circle of young people.

And then, a toddler came up and wanted to sit on my lap for a few minutes. To lighten the mood, build rapport, and be as real and fun as I could be, I ran to the open space with the boys to play soccer…

In only an hour and a half that morning the interactions with those young people generated tremendous meaning and significance affecting me in ways that I will hold and be reflecting on for a long time.

** This is part 2 of a 2 part blog; read part 1.

1 Comment

Nov 02, 2023

How fabulous Sarah. What an opportunity to make a difference in these kids' lives. How gratifying that must have felt. You writing left me inspired. Much love, S

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