In 2019, Victoria Falls, one of the world’s wonders, went dry. Each year, when the rainy season ends in Zambia, the falls slacken, but 2019 was different. That year, Zambia was still in the middle of the worst drought it had seen in at least a century, brought on chiefly by ongoing changes in climate. As a result, the falls disappeared, leaving parched and desperate crags in their place.
When I waded into the waters of the Zambezi river that November, I had no idea a pandemic was already stirring in other corners of our world, promising to bring an even more pronounced crisis in the coming months. But already, beneath the barren cliffs of Victoria Falls, I felt fragile and overwhelmed.
Faith in the Creator of a good, sacred creation requires not only wonder and gratitude, but also alarm and grief. Wading into the Zambezi demanded acknowledgement of the heartbreak Zambia has borne—heartbreak humanity has perpetrated, acquiesced to, or been traumatized by. Floating in the Zambezi River, I had no power to demand rain. I had empty hands, a pleading heart, and eyes scanning the horizon for miracles.
The experience felt similar as I unloaded bag after bag of flour from a food distribution site in Mwandi days later. Working with World Renew—a humanitarian nonprofit changing poverty around the world—to tell the story of families experiencing severe hunger in western Zambia, I had grown accustomed to the phrase of thanks offered by hundreds of different mothers: “Without you, there would be so many more graveyards.”
Those who study the Zambezi basin believe that climate change is causing a delay in the monsoon season, resulting in longer periods of drought, followed by intense flooding. These shifts threaten food and water security for families like those I met in Western Zambia, not to mention community health and biodiversity in the region. Zambia is one of the countries that has contributed least to changes in global climate, yet it is one of the countries already experiencing some of the most direct and deadly harm. Zambians are paying for a damaged planet with their lives.
With local volunteers rushing around to set up the distribution lines and check off each voucher card so families received just enough food and seeds to survive until the next drop-off, I took a moment to listen to the story of an older man named Innocent, who was waiting for food to feed himself and his nine children. “I am the provider for my family,” Innocent said. “They depend on me and my farming. I farm maize, beans, and sorghum. Last year there were no rains. Our community didn’t have food. The relief program is what sustained our families.”
When I asked about the dreams he carried for his children, Innocent’s answer was simple: “My hope for my children as they grow is that they will be able to work on their farms and till the land. But if we have no rains in the future, it will be difficult.” Innocent’s attachment to the trauma of the land was palpable. He knows that if the land does not heal, his family will not survive.
Innocent’s story reminds us all what climate justice must include. As we engage in the work of demanding accountability for oil and gas companies, advocating for radical shifts in climate policy, and adjusting our spending and living practices to prioritize sustainability, we also must do the work of coming alongside farmers who have suffered from our country's prior and ongoing reckless behavior.
It’s not enough to carry bags of flour to those experiencing the impact of our actions, or to wade into the Zambezi River with a heart broken for the world’s suffering. Our grief must play a part in generating climate-adaptive solutions for the most vulnerable now. Otherwise, we are not engaged in the work of justice, we are merely engaged in self-preservation and the outsourcing of destruction to brothers and sisters around the world.
While I have watched Zambians struggle with climate crisis, I have also seen the power of their community resilience, advocacy in their own contexts, and crossing of barriers to provide love. Stories like Innocent’s have changed me. They have changed the focus of my own climate work with World Renew—from prioritizing programs of emergency food delivery to connecting North Americans more directly to programs that equip farmers with the climate adaptive tools, training, and seeds they need to build resilience and find flourishing amidst their current reality.
Witnessing the impact of climate change up close, whether you find yourself surveying the parched lands of Zambia or the flooded coastline of Texas, is sobering. But we cannot remain trapped in our grief or our guilt.
Today, I pray our justice will roll on like the mighty Zambezi River when the rains fall steady, bringing nourishment and hope to all.