"We all have the power to change things around us. It's something that we humans can do in small and big ways every day."
My Perfect Adventure
When Kumi Naidoo was 15 years old, he began making his way to the frontlines of South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. A student in the city of Durban, he was kicked out of high school and thrown into jail several times for protesting against racial segregation, until he eventually went abroad to study as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford in England. Returning home after Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, Naidoo helped the African National Congress win democratic national elections in 1994, turning a new page in South African history.
After that, Naidoo shifted his attention to global campaigns for education, women’s rights, poverty alleviation, and environmental conservation, where he finds himself again on the frontlines of a major movement today as executive director of Greenpeace International, one of the world’s best known and most vocal environmental groups.
Now 47, Naidoo has always been a fan of direct action. A couple examples: Shortly before taking his current job with Greenpeace in 2009, he joined Archbishop Desmond Tutu and hundreds of other activists on a 21-day hunger strike to support the democracy movement in Zimbabwe. In August of this year he and a Greenpeace team climbed a rusting oil platform in the Arctic to protest against an energy company’s drilling plans. In this interview, Naidoo tells us how he stayed motivated while getting hosed down with freezing water during that environmental action, what he learned from living through apartheid, and why he believes anything is possible.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I'd love to spend the day with my daughter in my hometown of Durban, in South Africa. It would be a beautiful sunny day, and we would take a hike through the nearby Drakensberg Mountains, a UNESCO heritage site. This is a place where you can find Bushmen paintings and it is exquisitely beautiful in terms of flora and fauna. On the hike, we would see people riding horses, lots of people hiking, and many small animals and snakes.
We would cook something vegetarian and spicy in the evening—probably spinach and potato curry—and catch up. My daughter is 20 and I don’t get to see her often enough; we usually meet at least once every couple of months.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I was recently in the Arctic, but I hear the underwater biodiversity is mind-blowing and we still don’t know a lot about life in the deep waters there, so I’d like to go back to explore that, maybe in the Chukchi Sea west of Alaska. Recently, scientists published findings describing the largest-known oceanic algal bloom in the world, and that could be an interesting site. This sea is navigable only four months a year, and you can also find polar bears, whales, and walrus there. But I’ve only ever done one diving training session and it didn’t go so well, so I’d have to prepare better this time around.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
It's difficult to go past my hometown. It's where I grew up, where I have my fondest memories of starting out as a young activist. It has changed quite a bit over the years, but most of my friends and family are still there. I think it’s always the people that make a place special.
Our cities are no longer racially segregated in the formal sense, but sadly the old racial demarcations of apartheid largely stay the same. Nevertheless, Durban has a beautiful coastline, culturally diverse people, amazing cuisine, and close proximity to the mountains. I go back there about twice a year.