WWF Board member Dr. Uzodinma Iweala on the connection between environmental and human health

Uzodinma Iweala stands in front of a bright wall

When Uzo Iweala was growing up in Washington, DC, he spent a lot of time in Rock Creek Park, a green oasis in the middle of the city. “Every Sunday, my father would take my sister, my two brothers, and me on long walks in different areas of the park, and we’d just get lost,” Iweala says. “He had such an appreciation for it because he grew up in southeastern Nigeria, in an area that was once dense tropical rain forest. That forest cover is mostly gone now, but it’s something that he remembered fondly. The park was a connection to a landscape that he knew well and felt at home in.”

These walks instilled in Iweala a strong sense of the connection between nature and people—“that we are actually a part of the environment and not separate from it.” Which is why during his training as a medical doctor, he was surprised that none of his classes addressed the impact of the environment on human health.

“There has definitely been more of a public conversation lately around the connection between the environment and human health,” he says, adding, “and while I think it’s baffling that we would have to go through a phase of actually integrating these two understandings and disciplines, it’s encouraging.”

That connection came to life for Iweala when he was working on a project in the Niger Delta in southern Nigeria, where mangrove forests have been damaged or destroyed by “relentless” oil spills. “What I found was that community health was a real problem,” Iweala says. “When these mangroves were decimated, so were the fisheries where people got their primary sources of nutrition. Water used for agriculture was contaminated, and livelihoods disappeared.”

“I’m inspired by the Nigerian people—not only our resilience, but also . . . our willingness to both push and participate in the change necessary for a sustainable future.”

Dr. Uzodinma Iweala
WWF Board Member

And while that’s one level of impact, Iweala says, it’s not the only one. What’s often not accounted for is the mental stress associated with the destruction of a person’s environment.

“People delink the two things because they think, ‘Oh, these people are stressed because they live in poverty,’” he says. “The truth is, they are stressed living in poverty because their livelihoods have been destroyed—because the ecosystem in which they operated has been destroyed, and with it a sense of self, belonging, and even dignity.” Humans are profound manipulators of the environment, of course. But ultimately, our actions flip the script, and we end up being manipulated by the environment.

Iweala’s connection to Nigeria is profound and has informed nearly every aspect of his life. His senior creative writing thesis at Harvard became the best-selling novel Beasts of No Nation, about a child soldier in an unnamed West African country. He also wrote the novel Speak No Evil about a Nigerian American high school student living with a secret in Washington, DC, and the non-fiction book Our Kind of People, about the struggles of people in Nigeria living with HIV/AIDS.

As Iweala wraps up his tenure as CEO of The Africa Center, a nonprofit dedicated to transforming the world’s understanding of that continent, his mind returns often to Nigeria. “It’s very clear that we need to have a different relationship with the environment there in order for the 230 million people who live in Nigeria to survive and thrive,” he says.

“I’m inspired by the work WWF does in Africa in service to this goal. And I’m inspired by the Nigerian people—not only our resilience, but also our frustration with the way things are presently being done, and our willingness to both push and participate in the change necessary for a sustainable future.”

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