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New book brings inspiring stories of faith eco action from Africa

October 10, 2013:

Hajjat Sebyala (foreground) at a pilot egg-plant project in Uganda

‘As women we were helpless before this project’

Ugandan farmer Margret Setumba is thrilled. The money she earns by selling the fruit and vegetables she has grown helps to pay her children’s school fees – and those of her orphaned grandchildren.

But the initiative, run by the inspirational Muslim environmental champion Hajjat Sebyala has even deeper consequences: it empowers women.

Another member of her flourishing movement, Madina Tebasoka, who is also educating her children thanks to her new income earned from small-scale farming, speaks for many when she says: ‘As women we were helpless before this project.’

The 32 women members of the initiative are now able to generate income though activities including running tree nurseries, raising chicks and selling eggs, fruit and vegetables. Earning much-needed cash leads to independence and empowerment and that – hand-in-hand with preserving the environment – is what the dynamic Muslim eco champion Hajjat sees as her mission in life.

‘Our people are not sensitised to environmental issues,’ she says. ‘They have cut down all the trees in Gomba and our hills are bare…. They are not aware of the use of trees in preserving the environment. Now all our people are asking for seedlings… in the next few years we should see a better and greener Gomba.’

Inspiring new book

This is just one of the stories that feature in a new book, Many Heavens One Earth in Action: Stories of African Faith Commitments. It was written and produced by the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC) to highlight some of the inspiring initiatives carried out by Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups in sub-Saharan Africa to protect the living planet. It is the first time stories of African faith action on the environment have been gathered together in this way.

These initiatives have arisen from the long-term action plans on the environment launched by 27 faith groups at a Celebration organised by ARC in Nairobi, Kenya, in September last year.

Speaking at the Celebration, Dr Ali Mohamed, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources, Kenya, described the launch of the long-term plans as: ‘A new awakening that will help shape beliefs, behaviour and actions for a greener and better Africa.’ And UNEP Director and Regional Representative for Africa, Mounkaila Goumandakoye hailed it as ‘potentially transformative’.

The book also highlights many other remarkable stories of commitment and dedication from energetic adults, enthused children and inspiring religious leaders.

The faiths have pledged to plant 43 million trees in the next seven years (and thousands of people are farming sustainably using the principles of Farming God’s Way. Farming God’s Way is also the inspiration for a new initiative, Farming in Allah’s Way, which is currently being developed by ARC in response to requests from Muslim faith partners. Like Farming God’s Way, this is a faith-based approach to conservation farming – a form of climate smart agriculture that both restores degraded land and increases crop yield - and gives farmers hope for the future. It aims to transform agriculture for Muslim and Christian farmers, with an increase in crop yield by 3, 5 or even 10 times.

‘Farming will be transformed’

As Augustine Muema Musyimi of the Methodist Church in Kenya says: ‘I think this will mean that farming will be transformed across Kenya, that many people will learn to farm in a way that glorifies the Lord and our produce will increase and, more than that, that we will conserve our land and it will be richer rather than more spent.’

Many Heavens, One Earth in Action’s stories of women-led tree nurseries, dry-season gardening, the planting of new community woodlots, making charcoal briquettes from agricultural waste, building biogas digesters in Ethiopian monasteries and convents, and school projects involving gardening, bee-keeping and water conservation all make thought-provoking reading.

In the book, eco-schools champion Tom Barasa Wafula says: ‘If you have a good idea, don’t wait for funding. Do what you believe and then you’ll attract funding because you have a good project to show…so, begin small, finish big.

Water and hygiene initiatives at Star of the Sea School, Mombasa, Kenya, have reduced problems of diarrhoea.
A little faith moves mountains.’

The water and hygiene projects being carried out in faith-based schools are achieving more than putting food on plates – they are saving lives.

Teacher Newton Mwatoa, of Star Of The Sea Girls’ School in Mombasa, Kenya, says: ‘Before, we had very few water points and the girls would push one another and fall down, but now we have more, where they girls can go in a queue and wash their hands very well. It has really reduced the problems of accidents and it has also reduced problems of diarrhoea.’

The headmaster of Irianini Primary School in Meru, Kenya agrees. He says: ‘Due to hygiene, the health of the students as improved tremendously. We have reduced the rate of sickness by 90 per cent.’

Hindu project wins awards

Another project is an award winner. The Hindu Religious and Service Centre started its first tree-planting project in conjunction with the Hindu Council of Kenya in 2005.

The project’s target was to increase Kenya’s forest cover from three per cent to 10 per cent. The survival rate of most tree projects is 20-25 per cent, so the project aimed for 80 per cent. Dr Minesh Shah of the Hindu Council says: ‘To date we have planted 61,200 trees with a survival rate of close to 90 per cent.’

In recognition of the magnificent effort, the joint organisation received a Total Eco-Challenge Award in 2007 and again in 2012. After receiving the 2012 award, Dr Shah said: ‘We were probably the only faith-based organisation to win this award and it was humbling to stand along with the big corporates who are planting up to one million trees a year. I am happy to say that the Hindu-Christian partnership in tree-planting in all our projects is doing so well.’

Delegates from the 27 faith groups celebrate the launch of their plans in Nairobi, 2012
The book also has details of a unique toolkit drawn up for use in primary schools. The Faith-based Education for Sustainable Development Teacher’s Toolkit outlines the faith teachings of Christianity, Hinduism and Islam in caring for the environment alongside teaching young people life-changing practical skills such as rainwater harvesting or setting up small businesses such as bee keeping.

Background to the book

The book arose from a project funded by the World Bank through its TerrAfrica partnership, with additional funding from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway, to engage the faiths in sustainable land and water management. The result was the development of long-term plans by 27 Christian, Muslim and Hindu groups.

Between them, the 27 faith groups reach out to around 184 million people in 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Their long-term plans are the result of extensive consultation with their members over the last two years, from their grassroots to their most senior hierarchy, as well as a re-examination of what the holy books in each tradition say about the need to protect the environment as a religious responsibility.

The long-term plans establish caring for creation as an integral part of the lives of faithful people and have resulted in many new and innovative projects. The book captures some of the new projects, and the good practice they demonstrate, with the hope that it can inspire others.

ARC Deputy Secretary General and Africa Programme Manager Alison Hilliard says: ‘These inspiring stories are testament to the vision and dedication of our faith partners. Millions of people are working hard to improve preserve the environment. At the same time, they are improving their health and the lives of their families and friends.

‘This is an exciting time for our partners in sub-Saharan Africa and we are building strong partnerships with established groups, NGOs and governments. Soon there will be many more exciting stories of faith in action.’

Further information

Many Heavens One Earth in Action: Africa pdf

Long term plans

Faith-based sustainable education toolkit for teachers

Farming God's Way

More photographs on our Flickr account

ESD Toolkit

Nairobi 2012 - launch of long-term plans

Farming God's Way workshop, Kenya 2012

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Teachers' toolkit
ARC and its partners in sub-Saharan Africa have written a teachers' toolkit on faith-based education for sustainable development
List of African commitments
In September 2012, 25 faith groups from 11 countries in sub-Saharan Africa will launch their Long-Term Commitments for a Living Planet at ARC's Nairobi Celebration at the All Africa Conference of Churches' Desmond Tutu Conference Center.
Faiths make partnerships on climate change
ARC is working with the faiths to use their influence and resources to press for urgent action against global warming.