Meet Vanessa Nakate, Uganda's First Climate Striker

The climate emergency is damaging Uganda, but much of the media is silent. Now Vanessa Nakate is raising the alarm

It was a Friday during the second hottest year ever recorded on Earth, when 23-year-old Vanessa Nakate took the future into her own hands. She hadn’t been taught about the climate crisis while at school in Uganda, but during six months of her own research she saw the terrible toll it is taking on her country, and that Friday she decided to speak up.

She heard the clarion call of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future climate strikes. But while Thunberg’s activism was sending shockwaves around the planet, Nakate felt people in Uganda were talking about political and poverty problems in a vacuum, without considering that climate change is worsening them. In January 2019, she stepped out alone on the streets of Kampala holding a placard emblazoned with the words “Climate Action Now”. She was going to have to start some shockwaves on her own.

“It was very scary because I had never done something like that and I'm quite a shy person naturally,” she says, casting her mind back to that first strike. “It was not easy going to the street, and watching people look at me and read my placard. Many [passersby] would throw comments...”

For over a year now, Nakate has been striking every week with the Fridays for Future movement. There are also other Fridays for Future activists in Uganda, such as Leah Namugerwa, and a growing movement, as shown by the Fridays for Future Uganda Twitter account. Nakate also goes to schools in Kampala to educate students about climate change, and organises clean-ups in local communities to deal with plastic pollution. A daily strike to raise awareness about specific climate issues in the Congo basin rainforest is another regular activity.

“Before I started the strike for the Congo, I read a number of articles that talked about destruction and fire in the Congo, that talked about how it would be gone by 2100. No one talks about this,” she says, “and yet it is the second largest rainforest in the world after the Amazon. It made me realise that climate change of course is affecting Africa a lot, but Africa is not really getting as much attention as the rest of the continents.” Scientists have noted a long-term drying trend and an increase in the length of the dry season in the Congo basin rainforest which stretches across central Africa, where many fires raged last year.

Nakate’s concerns for climate change’s impact on the African continent don’t stop there: “Last year from October to December there were various disasters in Africa like floods, and [they] would get like just one tweet from an organisation or one tweet from an influential person,” she says. “But when disasters happen in Western countries, I've been seeing tweets for like two months now, people donate. It's a different story for Africa."

Climate change is a social issue, it's a gender issue

A short rainy season late last year in Uganda brought floods and landslides which led to the destruction of property and loss of life. The scale of the impact on individual families is hard to contemplate. “In my country most families depend on agriculture as a form of survival but if we get these rains and their farms are destroyed, many people are left with no hope for the future,” she explains. “Their dreams are shattered because everything has been lost. Loved ones have been lost, farms have been lost, houses have been lost. The saddest thing about it is that it’s the children who die the most during these floods.”

For children who survive, particularly girls, the fate awaiting them is a stark reminder of the social cost of greenhouse gas emissions. “Climate change does not just cause floods and many disasters, many girls' dreams are destroyed as well,” she confirms. She points to girls whose families have had their livelihoods destroyed by unstable weather patterns, many of whom end up married off to older men. “If a family depends on [subsistence] agriculture as their form of survival and they lose everything because of the torrential rains and the floods, they lose their home. That means the family... is left with no hope for the future and there is no way they can take care of their children.

“The girl child suffers the most because parents believe that it is better to move them out for marriage, because they'll be able to survive there so the family can take care of fewer children... Climate change is a social issue, it's a gender issue.”

Nakate’s message is a powerful one, backed by science. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, temperatures in Africa are rising twice as fast as the world average. Areas of the global south such as Ethiopia or Zambia are on the frontline of the climate emergency despite making only small contributions to global carbon emissions. A report from CARE has outlined that of the 10 most under-reported humanitarian crises of 2019, nine took place in Africa, and the climate crisis has often played a role in worsening or causing these problems.

Nakate recently spoke in a joint press conference alongside white climate activists Greta Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson at the World Economic Forum in Davos. But not long after we speak, she finds herself at the centre of a major controversy when globally influential news agency Associated Press crops her out of a photo of the group.

The message is to corporations and governments who brought us into this mess

Nakate posted a video online saying this “was the first time in my life that I understood the definition of the word ‘racism’”, and it went viral. She later told Buzzfeed News: “I cried because it was so sad not just that it was racist, I was sad because of the people from Africa… It showed how we are valued. It hurt me a lot. It is the worst thing I have ever seen in my life.” 

The Associated Press initially said the crop was simply to enable a close-up of Thunberg. Executive editor and senior vice president, Sally Buzbee, later made a personal apology to Nakate, saying: “Vanessa, on behalf of the AP, I want to say how sorry I am that we cropped that photo and removed you from it. It was a mistake that we realize silenced your voice, and we apologize. We will all work hard to learn from this.” In its own report, AP said the episode had led to “soul-searching on race”.

The furore carried a greater significance because of the sense in which it represented a broader culture across the media: “Climate activists of colour are erased,” Nakate told the Guardian. “I [had] activists who messaged me to tell me that the same thing happened to them before but they didn’t have the courage to say anything.”

Despite this difficult episode, Nakate’s focus remains resolute: she wants activists’ voices to be heard. There are typically around 10 people striking for the Congo rainforest on an average weekday, though more join on Saturdays. In her reckoning, activists need some kind of association with figures who stalk the corridors of power — or at least appear on TV chat shows — to gain credibility in the eyes of the Ugandan public and beyond. Political leaders and celebrities in Africa can be frustratingly quiet, she says. “Even our own influential people in Africa, they are silent as well [as the international community], the celebrities they are silent. It is so frustrating...

“As I speak right now the strikes have been going on for like a year but no African president has dared to talk about the climate activism… It is one thing for them to say they don't support us, it's another thing for them to say they support us, but it's really frustrating when they keep silent… What I really want is for every African activist to be heard because they have a story to tell about their country."

She has now started the Rise Up Movement to amplify the voices of African activists, which should help boost their momentum. Encouragingly, it has already spread to eight African countries despite only having existed for a week when we speak. Who’s she trying to reach? “Everyone that needs to listen... But mainly the message is to corporations and governments who brought us into this mess. They have the authority to change the systems that cause climate change because however much you speak, the normal person in the public does not truly have the authority to change the system.” 

What the public can do is apply pressure on governments, corporations and third-sector organisations. Such pressure is needed urgently, but Nakate’s resolve shows that every one of us must make a difference. “It doesn't matter if you start alone, the important thing is having the message, having your facts at hand, and desiring to save the future and the planet for all of us,” she says, a steely determination in her eyes. “When you start alone, eventually people will follow.”