An Interview with Allen Ottaro

by Gordon Nary



Gordon: What impact has Jesuit social thought had up your career?


Allen: My first encounter with the Jesuits was in the year 2006, when I discovered on the internet a young adult program based on Ignatian spirituality, called Magis. Through the Magis program, young people could grow deeper in their relationship with God, with each other, by engaging in service to the community around them, especially where the need is greatest. I took part in an international Magis program in 2006, and then coordinated a national Magis program in Kenya, between 2007 and 2009, then 2012 to 2013. Experiencing the Ignatian spirituality through the Magis program has had a strong impact on my career, to be a contemplative in action. I try to discover God’s presence in all aspects of my work, and the best way to respond by being of service to others.


Gordon: When and why did you serve as an Intern at African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) in Nairobi and what were the primary lessons that you learned??


Allen: I served as an intern at the AJAN in Nairobi, between August 2009 and February 2011. At the time, I was discerning about joining the Jesuits. There was an opportunity to serve at AJAN as a way of experiencing Jesuit life and mission, and I took it up. Under the guidance of the director at the time, Fr. Michael Czerny, SJ, who is now a Cardinal, I learned the importance of a life of prayer in any mission. At AJAN, the day always started with Mass. The sense of community was also very important. Both the lay staff and the Jesuits worked well in a spirit of collaboration. I also learned the importance of celebrating life. Birthdays and other celebrations were an important aspect of life at AJAN, to appreciate the gift of each member of the community.


Gordon: What interested you are serving as n intern at Toruńskie Stowarzyszenie Ekologiczne "Tilia" (Torun Ecological Association 'Tilia') in Poland and what were the primary lessons that you learned?


Allen: I had visited Poland for about 2 weeks in late 2010, at the invitation of some Polish friends, and traveled to a few cities – Warsaw, Krakow, Bialystok, and Wadowice. I was moved by the deep and strong history of Poland and the beautiful nature and culture. When I finished my time at AJAN in early 2011, I thought about looking for an international experience in environmental work, and naturally, I was drawn to Poland. I spent 8 months at the Barbarka Forest School, which is managed by the Torun Ecological Association. The centre is located in a forest settlement and provides ecological education to children and young people. It was a great experience for me to see young people get in contact with nature and appreciate its magnificence and beauty. Once in a while, I had the chance to make presentations about nature and culture in Africa, which were often received with great interest by the young people. I was deeply struck by the depth of Polish faith and a strong sense of family, which often reminded me of home.


Gordon: You are the Executive Director at Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA) Kenya. What are your primary responsibilities?


Allen: CYNESA is still a relatively young organization, at just 6 years since it was officially incorporated. The formation is at the heart of our mission at CYNESA, and the encyclical letter Laudato Si is our main guide. My primary responsibility in ensuring that the CYNESA team and volunteers are properly formed in Catholic Social teaching on care of creation, so they can, in turn, reach out to their peers and be effective in fostering environmental action in their communities. I am responsible for the growth of the organization, by establishing national chapters in African countries, and strengthening the ones we have already. We have 8 so far (Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe). This year we hope to launch Nigeria, Malawi, Namibia, and Ghana, and aim to reach 20 in the next 3 years. Fundraising and building partnerships is a big part of the growth process. I am also responsible for coordinating the international aspect of our work, which includes speaking engagements and environmental policy work. I am also responsible for developing the leadership and management skills of the CYNESA team, through mentorship.


Gordon: How aware are young people in Kenya of the current challenges to the environment and what are the primary challenges in which they have shown interest, and what are they doing to address them?


Allen: Young people below the age of 35 constitute about 70 percent of the population of Kenya, and are therefore key stakeholders in addressing environmental challenges. Young people are acutely aware of environmental issues, ranging from the climate crisis, loss of biological diversity, water, and air pollution, and the impacts on food security and health. Majority of the young people are well educated and are highly connected through social media platforms. They are also very innovative in creating solutions to these challenges, for example through recycling projects that create jobs, a tree growing to help restore forest cover and clean up campaigns to create awareness on the importance of a clean and healthy environment. Young people are also active in contributing to environmental policy processes at the local, national, regional and international levels. They continuously call to account leaders and policymakers, by urging them to urgently tackle the climate and biodiversity crisis, and other environmental concerns. CYNESA aims to get more young Catholics involved and to bring the Catholic faith to these various environmental initiatives. We are motivated by Pope Francis who reminds us in Laudato Si, that “young people demand change. They wonder how anyone can claim to be building a better future, without thinking of the environmental crisis and the sufferings of the excluded.”


Gordon: What, in your opinion, is everyone’s moral responsibility to be as active as possible in addressing the threat of climate change and other environmental challenges?


Allen: Everyone benefits from a clean and healthy environment, and therefore each one has a responsibility, according to their ability, to care for our common home. The climate crisis and other environmental challenges affect especially the most vulnerable in our communities-the poor and excluded. It is, therefore, a moral imperative for everyone to examine their lifestyle and lifestyle choices, reflect on how they impact the environment and the poor, and strive to change course, on the journey of ecological conversion. CYNESA works to accompany young people on that journey.


Gordon: Thank you for your exceptional work and for this interview.

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