Manar  |  She/Her

People Like You, Who Raise Their Hands

Gabes/Tunis, Tunisia
Mediterranean Forests, Woodlands, and Scrub

Session 3: December 12, 2022

I grew up in the city called Gabes, in South Tunisia, on a gulf of the Mediterranean. Since I was young, I have been that curious girl in the family who always wants to learn and explore. I felt a pleasure in learning new subjects, new languages. I always had my head inside a book. I’ve also always felt a special connection to nature. I grew up in my grandma’s house, surrounded by family, and we would all go to harvest olives together and make our own olive oil, and we went often to the beach. I have so many memories of being in nature with my family.

I also happen to be Imazighen—the indigenous people of North Africa. I didn’t grow up in Matmata, the Imazighen village in the Gabes region, but my grandpa did. He moved to the city, so that’s where I grew up. I’ve always been surrounded by the culture, but I grew up with this desire to learn more about my identity and my community. I grew up seeing my grandma weaving palm-tree leaves into bags and traditional clothing. I don’t know if you’ve been to Tunisia, but if you have, you’ve probably seen the woven hats worn during special occasions.

I think everyone can look back on their life and find a moment where you think, “Yeah. That happened for a reason.” For me, when I was in ninth grade, I had an English teacher, and I was her favorite student. One day, she was teaching us about climate change. (In Tunisia, we learn about climate change in ninth grade, and it’s not a science subject. It’s an “English” subject.) And I got furious when I saw that we were reading a report from 2001. I raised my hand, and I asked, “Why are we reading a report that’s eight years old when there are new numbers each year? And why are we learning about this global issue only as an English subject? It’s really frustrating!”

And that English teacher, she knew that I had something. After class, she called me, and she said, “Manar, I know exactly how you feel. Unfortunately, in our education system, there are a lot of things that should be changed. We teachers are not satisfied with the resources we have to give to students.” And she told me, “People like you, who raise their hands, are here to make that change.” She told me that there was an environmental club at the school, and she said that if I worked with them, I might find a community of people who could understand me.

So I said OK, and I got into the club. And I found the community that I wanted. I felt heard. One time, we had a movie screening of Before the Flood, with Leonardo DiCaprio. And after watching that movie, we tried to brainstorm how we could take that knowledge into real action, local action, even if it’s small. And we chose plastic pollution specifically. We thought that if we could treat this problem, or even just educate our local community about it, we could make an impact. And suddenly, I remembered the bags made of palm tree leaves that I grew up watching my grandma make. We thought, “This could be the solution. This is inspired by our tradition. It’s part of our identity. Why are we even using plastic bags when we have this alternative?” So we used those traditional bags as a way to make a contribution in our community and educate them about the global crisis.

And my action didn’t stop there, because I understand that to tackle the global crisis, we need a bigger change, change in the whole system that depends on fossil fuels. Our project got selected for a national award, and that led to opportunities for me to travel and learn more about climate science. And I knew: “This is my purpose. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to bring this knowledge home.”

So I went back, and I started to work on local mobilization. Influenced by Greta Thunberg, I started skipping school every Friday and traveling alone to Tunis, the capital. I was 17 years old. My dad would wake up at three in the morning to drop me at the station, so I could take the five-hour journey by van to attend a climate march and then go back the same day, because my parents would go crazy if I slept in the capital! I was just a small girl, holding her poster inside the van. But I felt fulfilled. I had actually made my voice heard. I found a community of people organizing marches, and I met up with Youth for Climate Tunisia. I went on to university, and I founded a youth-led organization called EcoWave.

So the bags were just the beginning. Little did I know, when I joined that club in ninth grade, that I would soon be leading a team of youth changemakers around the country. Little did I know that within a few years, I would be standing at the United Nations headquarters in New York and at other high-level international conferences, representing the voice of my community. Being able to be in those spaces, talking about youth, especially in the Middle East/North Africa region, is so important. We’re not well represented. So just being there, being a voice, gives me hope—even if we’re still lacking a lot of things that should really be addressed.

Manar is a climate activist from Tunisia, North Africa and a National Geographic Young Explorer. She has used her influence to work with governmental leaders and business executives to make sustainable decisions. Growing up in Gabes, Tunisia along the Mediterranean coast, Manar was always passionate about the oceans. She was designated as a Global Leader of Solutions To Plastic Pollution by Algalita Marine Research and Education and is a Conrad Innovator. Manar is outspoken about the role and power of youth in creating solutions to global challenges.