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Season of Creation Reflection: Fr James Martin SJ

“When the Elephants Fight”

When I worked in Kenya with refugees in the early 1990s, there was a Kiswahili saying I heard often, “Wapiganapo tembo nyasi huumia,” which means, “When the elephants fight, the grass suffers.”

Usually this is a way of saying that when big powers (nations, states, leaders) fight or go to war, it is the poor who suffer the most.  Or perhaps those “on the ground.”  This should be obvious to anyone who has ever opened a newspaper or seen a story online about the victims of war, or about refugees and migrants.

But the saying also applies to what happens to the poor when political leaders fight over climate change, which is: they suffer.  The poor always suffer the effects of climate change in a disproportionate way.

Why?  Simply, put they usually have nowhere to go.  They cannot escape its effects. If you are a poor person whose family has for decades lived in a flood-prone area, along a coastline or riverbank, you cannot say, “Well, it’s time to move to another place.”  If your livelihood as someone who fishes is taken away because certain species have been decimated by the effects of climate change, you cannot say, “Well, time to start preparing for another kind of job.” If you are underemployed and your home and your belongings are destroyed by a “once-in-a-century storm” (a hurricane, a cyclone, a tornado) of the kind that are happening yearly and even monthly, you cannot say, “Well, time to start over.” You may have nothing left at all.

Why is it so hard for policy makers to see this?  As Pope Francis points out in “Laudato Si,” many of them simply do not know poor people, and so the poor remain invisible to them, their concerns meaningless.  One of our goals, then, through voting, advocacy, storytelling and protests, should be to get the elephants to care.


James Martin SJ

Author and editor at large America Magazine