In South Africa, Womxn’s Month is a historic tribute to the thousands of womxn, from across the country, who marched to the Union Buildings, on 9 August 1956, to protest the extension of Apartheid Pass Laws to womxn. We celebrate Womxn’s Month as a commemoration of the resilient, remarkable, passionate, multi-faceted, inspirational womxn, that form the past, present, and future of our country.
This Womxn’s Month, in honour and celebration of South African womxn, we want to share with you a short series of conversations with a few inspirational, trailblazing South African womxn. We hope their stories and their words remind you of your own potential, as we continue to shape the future we hope for.
Today’s ‘Trailblazing Womxn’ is Aaniyah Omardien. Aaniyah is an intersectional environmentalist with a great love for the ocean. After studying environmental science, she worked in conservation for more than 10 years, at WWF South Africa (while completing her Masters in Marine Management), before founding The Beach Co-op in 2015. The Beach Co-op is a not-for-profit company, on a mission to eliminate, reuse, redesign and recycle single-use plastic, which often lands up in our oceans and on our beaches. I chatted to Aaniyah about her love for the ocean, her mission as an intersectional environmentalist and the joy of connecting with nature.
When did you fall in love with the ocean?
Aaniyah: I fell in love with the ocean as a young girl having grown up in Cape Town where the mountains meet the sea and being lucky enough to have parents who taught my siblings and I how to swim. My mom grew up in the Strand and recalls harvesting periwinkles along the rocky shore – she taught us how to make periwinkle soup. My connection to the ocean is in my blood from a long lineage of ancestors that were brought to the Cape from Malaysia/Indonesia as slaves.
In an interview with Twyg, you recalled a childhood memory of having summertime supper picnics at Dalebrook tidal pool in Kalk Bay. How does it feel to work so closely with the tidal areas that you spent so much time around, while growing up?
Aaniyah: Those picnics were all about sharing – sharing food and sharing time with each other. My parents played a key role in teaching us to share and care by setting an example in the sharing of food, clothes and money with others. No matter how little one has, sharing what one has makes it grow. I have tried to carry this philosophy through in everything I do. My work as an intersectional environmentalist is no different – caring for the planet and its people is a natural extension of this philosophy.
What does being an intersectional environmentalist mean to you?
Aaniyah: For the longest time I have struggled with being tagged as an environmentalist, because it did not capture the social justice and human rights issues that I feel are mostly side-lined in traditional conservation and environmental practices. Being an intersectional environmentalist means that we co-create and construct an equitable economy by including the voices and knowledge of the most marginalised. And that we learn to meet our basic needs as a species while operating within planetary boundaries and in harmony with each other and natural systems.
Life systems are connected across geo-political and social boundaries. The Beach Co-op works within a global understanding of environmental and social opportunities and challenges, but acts at the local and national level to address them.
You studied environmental science, and then worked for the World Wildlife Fund (while completing your Masters), before you founded the Beach Co-op. While the work of the Beach Co-op focusses on ocean conservation and eliminating single-use plastics that so often end up in the ocean, I feel that there is also a huge emphasis on creating community. Why is this community-building so important to the Beach Co-op?
Aaniyah: Family and community are one of The Beach Co-op's core values. We respect the structures of families and communities and work to strengthen bonds that support regenerative activities. We are also keen to build ocean communities that care for our marine environment - not only because the ocean has intrinsic value in its itself, but also because it provides clean air for us to breathe, protein for us to eat and supports the availability and quality of fresh water that we drink and use to irrigate our crops.
Reconnecting people with nature is a big part of your work and your ethos. What are some of your favourite ways to stay connected with nature?
Aaniyah: As much as I love sharing the beauty of our natural world with others, I also need time alone in nature to reflect and nurture myself and my family. Simply tending to the plants in my own garden during lockdown was my way of staying connected to nature. I also walk on the beach or in the mountain, surf at my local break Muizenberg and snorkel in the kelp forest, or in the tidal pool, if time is short.
Do you ever struggle with eco-anxiety? And, if so, how do you deal with it?
Aaniyah: Yes, I do, and the best medicine for me is to head out into nature. This gives me hope to continue doing the work I do – to learn from others and share what I know, to keep pushing for what is good for the Earth and good for the people.
Can you tell us about a womxn that inspires you?
Aaniyah: There are many, but my latest girl crush has got to be Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She is a Black marine biologist and I love the way she writes, talks and lives as an intersectional environmentalist. I cannot wait to get a copy of her latest book All We Can Save, an anthology of wisdom from womxn climate leaders, including essays, poems and art by 60 contributors.