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“Wallah my grandmother knows everything”: how do we preserve the lifeways of our ancestors?

Discussions on building a climate-just future from our past knowledges with Tunisian climate activist Islam Zrelli

Illustration by Javie Huxley @javhux

We nourish all we can. We plant the seeds and feed the land. We care for each other. We trust the seasons. Things have changed, and they carry on changing. Sometimes I get flashbacks to a life I never knew, fruits I never tasted, the rhythms of the people I come from. We are Amazigh, sometimes referred to by the colonial term Berber. Our female elders have facial tattoos representing symbols of nature and agriculture. Amazigh translates to “free people”: free to farm nomadically, live by the seasons and live in community with the Earth.

These reflections are at the centre of my work, as a French-Tunisian climate justice activist who focuses on food systems, abolition and the relationships between nature and culture. Born and raised in London, I have been separated from these lifeways after multiple colonisations and expulsions. Thoughts of other worlds, lives, dreams chase me down. 

Being in London, a few oceans away, I can feel this separation from the land, language and culture acutely. The elders are slipping away, but we want to learn, we want to preserve and nurture it. I chat with Islam Zrelli, also a young Tunisian climate justice activist who, inspired by our ancestors’ legacies, is working on climate education in our Tunisian dialects. I hoped to explore what climate activism looks like at a moment where our young people are returning to our Indigenous heritage. 

The soil I share with Islam Zrelli

Islam’s work weaves together different threads between feminism, Indigenous heritage and the global stage of COP. Founder of MENA Climate Lexicon, she is making sure minority cultures in the MENA region are included in the climate conversation.

I met Islam at a Youth For Climate Tunisia panel in Tunis last year, after I’d felt compelled to come to my homeland and see it through my re-discovered climate justice lens. 

I was inspired by the incredible Tunisian youth spreading awareness about climate justice. Islam was wearing a keffiyeh and advocating for Amazigh communities, which made my heart sing! We talked after the panel, and realised we are from the same ancestral lands of El Kef. We are made from the same soil and we share a vision.

Islam and I descend from the same region of El Kef, the Amazigh mountainous region in the North. We are both Tunisian climate justice activists, in different lands and contexts. 

From our different sides of the pond, we see how under-resourced North Africa is, through centuries of exploitation, extraction and (neo)colonialism. Our communities risk being either forgotten and excluded, or actively harmed by the green transition. If we don’t meaningfully engage in climate justice, our lands will be used for green capitalist agendas, such as the plan to cover the entire Sahara with solar panels to supply the West with ‘clean’ energy. 

When Islam first began her environmentalist journey in 2013, everyone told her not to study it. They thought she would never find work. “People believed climate change was a bedtime story, only affecting the animals,” she recalls. 

After 2019, climate change began to affect our lands, communities and cultural traditions in ways we didn’t expect. Heatwaves, failed olive harvests, rising sea levels in Kerkennah. The attitudes have slowly shifted, but our country suffers from a lack of good climate education.

Islam tells me that a prevailing narrative which she’s forced to contend with is this idea that the climate crisis is divine retribution, rather than manufactured through centuries of extraction and colonial looting. 

“People will say it’s not climate change, it’s Allah. He’s punishing us for lying, for the women behaving badly.” She explains that this religious mentality is prevalent in Tunisia, and is mirrored in other Muslim countries on the frontlines of climate change.

Language as colonialism

A huge part of this climate information gap is the English language dominating climate communications. Most climate science, messaging and vocabulary are in English. Even the Youth for Climate Tunisia event was in English and French. This makes vital information inaccessible to Tunisians who speak only their mother tongue. 

Islam grew up and into her activism, seeing only activists from the Global North in this fight. I work as a climate justice speaker, in a network of global climate activists from every corner of the world. Most are from the global majority and face significantly more challenges in their activism than me. 

“Where is the MENA region in all this? Why don’t we have vlogs, educational videos and climate reels on Instagram?” she says. 

When Islam went to COP24 in Poland, she realised how removed the Western-dominated actions were from everyday life in Tunisia. “These Western solutions centre expensive technological solutions over what we know to be true, what we have learned from each other and our elders,” she laments. And as ever, all of the information was in English. 

Seeing this disconnection between our people and the climate movement, Islam was inspired to action. She began circulating knowledge and resources in her Tunisian dialect on Instagram. From explaining zero waste, to unpacking COP negotiations, and sharing cultural pride of her Amazigh heritage. This work has given Tunisians access to information that was previously inaccessible.

Reclaiming Amazigh dialects 

“Our language is endangered,” Islam says. “They want us all to speak Arabic and forget our language. This is one way colonisation has impacted us.” From Kurdish, to Amazigh to Armenian, our power lies in our mother tongue. It is not that we do not have the words, it is that we are rapidly losing our languages.

Islam further explains that, in Tunisia, we have different words for climate-related issues, which come from the Amazigh dialects of our ancestors.” For example, to say a heatwave is ‘shilli’ means that it is dangerous, and we should stay inside. These ancient words are only becoming more relevant in light of our modern challenges and must be part of how we educate our communities. 

Islam recalls how, growing up, she was teased and treated as uneducated because of her agricultural roots and her Amazigh dialect – really, “because of [her] relationship with nature.” But now, she’s reclaiming this. In November 2023, she created the MENA Climate Lexicon, a platform that compiles regional and Indigenous environmental words from the region. 


Through the vital work of Islam, Youth for Climate Tunisia and of the Tunisian climate movement, the tide is changing. This vital work of translating and communicating climate means we can situate ourselves and recognise our communities in the fight for climate justice. We are finding our voice, in our mother tongue. 

Amazigh lifeways

It is not only platforming regional Tunisian dialects which is important, but preserving our ancestral ways of life. It is the Amazigh cultural renaissance taking the youth and diaspora by storm. This decades-long fight has led to cultural recognition of the Amazigh identity. 

The key to these revival movements are the concepts of awal (language), akkal (land), and ddham (culture). In the Amazigh community, grandmothers are the custodians of knowledge. They embody the link between our ancient customs and the rapid erosion of these ways of life. Islam says simply: “Wallah my grandmother knows everything.” 

We discuss our elders’ traditions. Things like using orange peel as dye, cutting up olive oil bottles and reusing them as plant pots: our grandmothers pioneered sustainability before it was trendy. This sustainability is embedded in our culture; a culture where wasting the blessings of Allah is haram.

“Our ancestors were zero waste,” explains Islam, as she tells me about her visit to Chenini, one of the last remaining Amazigh settlements in Tunisia. In Chenini their houses are built from earth, providing cooler lodgings than modern Western architecture. The real currency is found in the Earth, and the local food systems. 

Instead of money, the communities of Chenini trade with olive oil, craftsmanship and local produce. But these traditional ways of building, eating and living are rapidly eroding. Climate change is making our earth infertile, with successive failed olive harvests and wildfires. People are moving to the cities in search of economic opportunity. Culturally, the traditional ways of living no longer seem to make sense. These lifeways which sustained us for millenia are not just threatened by the multiple crises we are forced to navigate, but also because we are not placing enough value in our roots. 

Re-Indigenising ourselves and the climate movement

My great grandmother has tattoos and remembers the old ways. My grandmother learned to read and write in her 60s, as she was not offered an education as a child. My mother was born in Paris, and faced such terrible racism that she moved to the UK so I would never go through it. And now I am here, reaching back into the past and weaving together all these threads of the people I came from. I can barely remember, but I try to concentrate. 

While many elders hide their tattoos and are ashamed of their countryside accents, Islam and I watch in awe. “The elders are less confident than this new generation,” says Islam. Their connection to land and their Indigeneity was associated with being lower class and uneducated. A lot of our elders faced discrimination and stigma, from French colonialism as well as the colonialist policing of each other that still lingers in Tunisia. 

This shame of our traditions stems from anti-Blackness, and the rejection of our identities as African people. We discuss the resurgence of farming, tattoo culture and fashion we are witnessing. The youth are curious, and we look back at our elders with respect and awe but there is a real lack of resources, information and accessible material to learn about our awal, our akkal, our ddam.

“You won’t find anything about Tunisian Indigenous identities,” agrees Islam. Often the limited knowledge that is out there is paywalled, uses colonial terms like Berber and gawks at our people and traditions in a voyeuristic manner. 

Rather than through academia and institutions, our resources and knowledge are maintained in our lifeways and through the oral traditions of our culture. As our archives are living, embedded in our culture, they can feel intangible and difficult to grasp. This requires us to step up and radically engage with our elders and our communities and ensure this knowledge is passed down and preserved. It requires us to build our archives by hand, for us, by us. 

Final threads

I finish my conversation with Islam with hope. Just as the younger generation are reclaiming and celebrating their Indigenous identities, she says they are also “working together to create solutions and opportunities.” We are collaborating, as the Earth systems do. We are empowered Amazigh women who fiercely love life and justice, just as our ancestors did. 

Our neighbours Algeria and Morocco have done a far better job at preserving their cultures. Yet, these communities are all under threat due to a changing climate. Floods in Libya, earthquakes in Morocco, and failed olive harvests in Tunisia.

Climate isn’t just abstract science, it represents the very real, unexpected, unfolding ways that life is changing for us all. And, it is accelerating the erosion of our cultures and the separation between our people and the land. 

This is what so desperately needs to be communicated: these links between nature and our cultures. The people still living at this intersection: the Indigenous communities, farmers, and activists who are stigmatised for their connection and love of nature. 

It is up to us, as a new generation of climate activists, to unveil the beauty of the new world we are building. A world where we are safe, where our wealth is in the richness of the land. A world where we study the ones before us, but are empowered to reimagine one which fits just right. A world where we have changed path, and commit to regeneration and wholeness in all we do. 

Illustration by Javie Huxley @javhux who says: “I wanted to illustrate the Amazigh women wrapped in their Indigenous culture and landscapes of Tunisia. Inspired by the beautiful exploration of the symbiotic practices of Tunisian Amazigh women in the piece.”
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