Jennifer Uchendu is an ecofeminist and sustainable development advocate based in Lagos, Nigeria. Jennifer’s interests lie at the intersections of youth, women and climate action. She is the founder of SustyVibes, a youth-led organisation making sustainability actionable and relatable to young people. They recently launched The Eco-Anxiety Africa Project (TEAP) which seeks to explore and understand the unique experiences of eco-anxiety in Africans. Last year, Jennifer led a conversation at the Rights Studio festival on eco-anxiety and young people. The session explored how we may equip children and young people who experience eco-anxiety with the tools and support they urgently need to guide them through these psychological responses, and empower them in their climate action.
Whose shoulders do you stand on?
I stand on the shoulders of my late grandmothers and mothers (my mum and my mother-in-law). They are extremely resilient women who thrive regardless of what society throws at them. I definitely stand tall on their shoulders with a lot more clarity about my decisions on my future.
What do you wish you had learned in school?
I wish I learned more about my people and their stories. Chimamanda Adichie in her epistolary form manifesto, Dear Ijeawele Or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions wrote about teaching a young girl to take pride in the history of Africans, and in the Black diaspora, emphasizing on the need to find black heroes, men and women who exist in our history.
I wish I had learned about the works of great women like Wangari Matthai, Flora Nwapa, and the women of the 1929 “Aba women’s war” in Nigeria. I was particularly intrigued to have learned about the Nigerian Civil war as an adult. Learning these early in school would have shaped my thinking around African feminism and politics.
What have you learned recently that you want to share?
I recently learned that cats do not do so well with some essential oils like Lavenda, rue and some citrus scents. Now I am certain that I could never live with a cat.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find inspiration in simple things like going for a walk or hanging out at the beach, being in a hot shower, getting on a call with a friend and sitting still.
When was the last time you changed your mind and what was it about?
I changed my mind a few days ago about a project’s partnership terms. I realised that I felt so lost in the project even though I was the lead and owner. I redid the project strategy and feel a lot more authentic about the project.
What should you apologise for?
For being wrong - in assumptions and deeds; whether intentional or unintentional. When presented with new and correct information, we should be able to apologise and be open to learning.
What should you never apologise for?
Never apologise for prioritising your growth, for work, for making boundaries to protect your wellbeing, and for speaking up for the oppressed.
Do you have daily practice?
I pray everyday, sometimes I am able to have long prayer times, other times they are brief and direct. In all, it is the consistency that makes it so special for me.
When was the last time you laughed with a complete stranger?
Yesterday (Sunday)! And it was first with a baby and then his parents.
How do you make really hard decisions?
I would typically pray before making a decision but I also do this thing where I think about all the worst case scenarios that could possibly come with my decision and check within to see how they make me feel. I also like to discuss things with friends and my partner whenever possible.
What role does music (or other art form) play in your life?
I love music - it is such a mood booster for me. I am so grateful that technology has simplified the way we now access music from all over the world. I also love poetry as an art form, I find it not only therapeutic but also as a powerful tool for activism and for enabling voice in places where silence has been normalised.
What should we do upside down?
Scribble, draw, fantasise.
A recent book you read that changed you?
It has to be How to Do the Work: Recognize Your Patterns, Heal from Your Past, and Create Yourself by Dr. Nicole LePera. As I take conscious efforts to understand my mind, I have found this book to be an excellent resource and companion.
When are you most human?
Everyday, I show up as human as possible. This is the only way I can do my work efficiently. I believe being human is a sum total of all possible human experiences - joy, stress, vulnerability, grief, empowerment, strength, etc. They are all part of the human experience.
What would activism look like if we prioritised mental health and wellbeing?
Activism done this way would achieve so much more! I know this because I have just recently started exploring working on eco-anxiety for climate activists after a personal period of turbulence in 2019. The idea of burnout may not even exist because activists would have gained the skills required to incorporate selfcare as a daily, healthy practice. The world would be so much better for it because more people would be joyful activists. Joy is something that I am learning can exist independently. So many activists ( like me!) are burdened and struggling with the concept of independent joy.
The work that we do can always be a sprint, more people need to see activism as a marathon that requires not just hope, courage and resilience but also patience. Funders who support activists must also understand this and be realistic with expectations because there are so many factors that come into play when it comes to our mental health. I am constantly asking myself what success means to me and my work and how I can hold joy for much longer moments.
A question on your legacy: for whom do you want to open the path?
For anyone who has been labelled “too passionate, too expressive and too curious.” For people who are always trying new, small things to make the world a little better than they met it. I definitely want to pay things forward and help them find courage to keep pushing forward.
“From around the age of six, I had the habit of sketching from life. I became an artist, … but nothing I did before the age of 70 was worthy of attention. At 73, I began to grasp the structures of birds and beasts, insects and fish, and of the way plants grow. If I go on trying, I will surely understand them still better by the time I am 86, so that by 90 I will have penetrated to their essential nature. At 100, I may well have a positively divine understanding of them, while at 130, 140, or more I will have reached the stage where every dot and every stroke I paint will be alive.”— Katsushika Hokusai, also known as Gakyō Rōjin Manji (The Old Man Mad About Art)