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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A New African Voice on Climate

Air Date: Week of

Vanessa Nakate’s book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis recounts her journey as an environmental justice activist and serves as a roadmap for empowerment to those who want to follow her lead and act on the global climate crisis. (Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa Nakate)

Countries in the global South are among the least responsible for causing climate change compared to the global North but are among the ones suffering the most from its effects. Vanessa Nakate, a young climate justice activist from Uganda, is an advocate for the underserved communities who are the most affected by climate change. She joins Host Steve Curwood to talk about her book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, in which she points to how the climate crisis is impacting Africa and the discrimination she’s faced in speaking up.


BASCOMB: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb

CURWOOD: And I’m Steve Curwood.

Three years ago, at the age of 15 Greta Thunberg started the Fridays For the Future climate strikes by sitting in front of the Swedish Parliament, and millions of people around the world ultimately joined her cause. One of them was Vanessa Nakate of Kampala, Uganda who was just getting out of college at the time. Teenaged girls in Uganda don’t typically have the same social freedoms as many in the Global North have to be out on their own picketing and demonstrating. But at age 22 Vanessa Nakate could, as college age women have a lot more freedoms in her culture. And in the face of climate change, intensified floods and droughts that ravaged Uganda at the time Vanessa was inspired by Greta to organize and start holding climate strike signs herself in front of the Ugandan Parliament. Greta Thunberg soon heard of Vanessa through social media and in January of 2020 Vanessa was invited to join Greta for a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But the Associated Press cropped Vanessa, the only black woman, out of a widely circulated photo that included Greta Thunberg and three other white European activists. Comments citing that editorial decision as racist soon went viral. And since that incident Vanessa has used her visibility to bring light to climate struggles in the Global South. In her book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, Vanessa points to how climate change is impacting Africa and the short shrift that she and other people and nations of color receive at the UN climate talks. Vanessa Nakate welcome to Living on Earth!

NAKATE: Thank you so much happy to be here.

CURWOOD: You know, in the US we've had fires in the west of floods throughout the Midwest storms and droughts, but what kind of climate change effects are going on in Uganda?

NAKATE: The climate crisis is a present reality in Uganda. With the rising global temperatures, weather patterns are changing and we are seeing more extreme weather events. Uganda as a country heavily depends on agriculture for survival for many communities, especially those in the rural areas. But with the rising global temperatures many people are threatened with floods, droughts and landslides, causing massive destruction, massive loss of lives, loss of homes, farms and businesses. In the eastern part of the country, in areas around mountain Elgon, areas of Bududa and Bundibugyo people have experienced torrential rainfall causing massive flooding and landslides in the western part of the country in areas of Kasese, because of the rising global temperatures, many people have been displaced and still are living in camps because of extreme flooding.

CURWOOD: Please tell me a story of a particular recent climate related incident that was well not great for people in Uganda.

NAKATE: There are actually a number of events that have happened, but I can talk about one that happened last year. During the pandemic in 2020. The water levels of Lake Victoria rose as a result of extreme rainfall. And many people were displaced from their homes at a time when they had to stay at home to keep themselves safe. And with the rise in the water levels. Not only were farms destroyed, but even toilets were submerged, causing contamination of water sources and threatening the livelihoods of very many people.

Vanessa Nakate stands at center-right and carries a sign saying, "We cannot eat coal... we cannot drink oil."

CURWOOD: Now, you join Friday's for the Future in your 20s Vanessa. And that movement was made up of well, mostly teenagers and younger folks, why did you choose to join? Why did you choose to join the kids?

NAKATE: Yes. When I joined Friday’s for Future, I had also seen the movement and also how the media was reporting about the movement, and being a movement of teenagers and led by teenagers. And also, this is a challenge for some of my friends, because most of them were just finished in college and in their 20s. So, we all had this feeling that this movement was a movement for teenagers. But to me, that wasn't the issue. The issue was talking about what was happening in my country. So, I didn't really pay attention to how the media would report about the movement, whether it's for teenagers or not for teenagers, I just wanted to demand for climate justice and to talk about the challenges that the people in my country were facing because of the climate crisis.

CURWOOD: Vanessa, tell me about some of the projects that you're working on now.

NAKATE: In 2019, I started school project Vash build schools project, and it involves the installation of solar panels and eco friendly cookstoves in schools. And I started this project to help drive a transition to renewable energy in schools in Uganda, and also for the clean cooking stoves to reduce on the firewood that schools were using for preparation of foods. Almost all the schools in my country use firewood for food preparation. But with these eco friendly stoves, the number that is used is greatly cut. So, I hope that with this project, many schools can easily transition to renewable energy at no cost and also receive the eco friendly cookstoves. So far we've done installations in 13 schools.

CURWOOD: You write in your book that when you came actually to the UN, a couple of things happened. Number one, somehow you were asked to leave or move from areas that you didn't see other people being asked to move from. And also, you met with the Ugandan delegation. But when you come home, it was as if that hadn't happened. Can you tell me those stories?

NAKATE: Yes, I remember, one of the people was a part of the Ugandan delegation, sent me an email and asked if I can meet him and talk about my activism. And I did. We met at the UN, I think headquarters, and then after he directed me at the, I think it's like the Uganda house in the United States, New York, and he invited me for breakfast there, and I got to meet a number of the members of parliament, and I remember one of them actually recognizing me and saying that I've seen you on TV, you're the girl who strikes every Friday. And at that moment, I'm like, wait, you've seen me. And you haven't even said anything about the activism that I'm doing, or what are the young people doing, you're just telling me now. And at that moment, there was a couple of business cards, you can reach out to us when you're back in the country. But I remember when I did that, they never responded to my calls. And I had given my number t some of them but they also never called. So I thought that it would be an opening of, you know, me and other youth activists to speak to the parliament, or to speak to members of parliament about the work that we were doing, and about our demands, but it never actually happened. And, yes, the scenario at the UN where I got to be lifted twice from seats, I didn't pay much attention to it when it happened. But later on, while I was writing the book, I reflected back on it, and I started to think about why it had actually happened, and why I had to stand for a while until I finally got a seat. So the experience at the UN Youth Climate Summit was not as expected.

CURWOOD: So let's talk about the media. We're talking because Associated Press was quite rude to you at the session in Davos, they cropped the picture that didn't include you. And since then, of course, media has been knocking on your door, I'm sure you have more press requests than you can possibly handle. How do you think the media is handling the climate emergency?

NAKATE: Yeah, after the photo crop incident, I started to get very many interviews that I can do. And many times I asked to give the interview to another activist who is also doing activism either in Uganda or in another country. And media sometimes is always, you know, specific, we want you we want you or if it's the other person they want, you know, to know if they're eloquent enough, or if they have done interviews before or if they've spoken at events before. So it puts really a challenge on how the media is reporting the stories of the vast number of activists. And I think also another challenge is that media is putting a face or faces on the climate movement. And I find it really dangerous, because in a way, it erases other people's stories. So media has a responsibility to report about the climate crisis, to point about the climate solutions, to report about the science, to report about the activists who are speaking up, especially activists from the most affected areas, it's important to listen to their stories, every activist has a story to tell every story has a solution to give and every solution has a life to change.

CURWOOD: You write in your book, that you were heartbroken after the incident in Davos, and after your first trip to the United Nations. Talk to me about that. And what would mend your heart? What would heal your heart?

NAKATE: Yes, after my trip to New York for the UN Youth Climate Summit, my disappointment really came from, you know, the feeling that when I got the invitation, and when I was told that I would have a speaking role. I worked on my speech. And I was just really happy to talk about the experiences of the people in my country. And then towards the, you know, the trip, I asked, so how long should my speech be? And that's when I'm told that well, you're actually not going to speak but you will just be able to, you know, be like in discussions with other young activists. And at that point, it was really a disappointment before I left and I couldn't tell my family or my friends because they were very excited and you know, looking forward to hearing me talk about what was happening. So I think that was one of the you know, disappointments I had and also not being able to coordinate and meet as many activists as possible. While there was also a challenge. And then my other disappointment, the one in Davos, of course, I was really heartbroken and frustrated when I saw the picture and also read the article because I remember the press conference, one of the things that I really emphasized was the amplifying of voices from different parts of the world, because the activists from different parts of the world, and it was important for the media to do that. I remember mentioning that while at the press conference, so when I saw, you know, the picture, and then the article, I felt like everything that I said at the press conference, like it didn't matter at all effort, like it just went into the air and immediately disappeared, and no one was really paying attention. So it was really heartbreaking to see the picture. And what would really heal my heart? Yeah, I can say that my heart has healed and I forgive all of them.

CURWOOD: I've wondered myself, I've been to a number of the UN Climate meetings and such. And one thing, I noticed that only white countries, with exception of Japan were included in annex one back in the Kyoto process. And that typically, leadership all seems to be from the global north, there. Yes, there are people of color who sit on committees, and even the General Assembly is chaired by sometimes by persons of color, but the power remains at the Security Council. How effective do you think the United Nations is in dealing with the danger and concerns from climate for the global south, in terms that are strong enough and meaningful enough?

NAKATE: Well, I think that the UN, but not just the UN and the leaders and governments, I think that they're all not doing enough when it comes to handling the issues of the climate crisis in the global south. Because if they were, then we wouldn't be seeing that escalation or the frequent climate disasters in our communities. We wouldn't be seeing this floods or hurricanes or cyclones, or droughts unfolding in our communities. And it's really a responsibility of all these leaders to ensure that the people from the most affected communities are prioritized, and that their stories are listened to, and the solutions are given and, and that climate finance is given for these communities, especially for loss and damage. So it feels like we are still speeding in the wrong direction. And while we do that many people and many communities continue to suffer as a result of climate disasters.

CURWOOD: But we're still in the climate emergency. So before you go, Vanessa,


CURWOOD: We are now, the world, is listening to you. The world is gonna want to read your book, a bigger picture. And you are one among many activists, but like Greta Thunberg, you are now very much noticed as an activist, and from the part of the world that hasn't had much of a voice of activism. What's the message that you want people to know?

NAKATE: My message is really a long message, but I will try to, to put it in, you know, very few words. I come from Uganda, and it's a country in Africa. And it's important for people to know that, historically, Africa is responsible for only 3% of global emissions. And yet Africans are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts of the climate crisis. It's also important to know that while Africa, while the global south is on the frontlines of the climate crisis, it is not on the front pages of the world's newspapers. And it's also important to know that there are a number of activists in the African continent in the global south who are speaking up who are demanding for justice from leaders, from governments, from corporations. So what I would want people to know is that the young people in Africa are speaking up, and they're rising up for the people and they're rising up for the planet. And we want climate justice. We want climate action from the leaders and our voices will not be silenced.

CURWOOD: Vanessa Nakate's book is called A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis. Thanks for taking the time with us today.

NAKATE: You're welcome. Thank you so much.



Learn more about the Rise Up Movement Africa

Follow Vanessa Nakate on Twitter

Learn more about how climate change provokes food insecurity and displacement in Africa

Learn more about the campaign to save the Congo Basin rainforest

Vanessa Nakate’s solar installation project

Washington Post “Climate Activists Greta Thunberg And Vanessa Nakate Scold Global Leaders For Lack Of Action”


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