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Vanessa Nakate, the young face of Africa’s climate change

Ugandan climate change activist Vanessa Nakate.

Ugandan climate change activist Vanessa Nakate.

Published Nov 28, 2021


One of the biggest stories in early 2020 before Covid-19 grabbed all the headlines, took place was the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, where the most important global leaders, business figures, celebrities and philanthropists gather and discuss the challenges the world faces.

While this happens, there are climate change activists in the background, also doing their best to remind the most powerful people in the world of how they need to factor in the state of the environment in their decision making.

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One of those activists was Ugandan Vanessa Nakate who, together with other young climate change activists, was present at the World Economic Forum. And yet when a picture was taken of these young activists, which included Nakate, Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille, she was cropped out.

Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate posted the original photo below the one in which she was cropped out. PHOTO: via Twitter.

The photograph was used by global media and yet she wasn't in the picture. It was an erasure that caused a storm on social media and reminded the world of how racism was still so prevalent and shone a light on the need for diversity within the environmental movement.

Nearly two years later, Nakate is a global figure, one of the leading young voices on climate change and the environmental movement. The 25-year-old was one of the loudest voices at Cop26 in Glasgow, where she was outspoken about Africa being left out of the conversation and decision making, despite the continent being severely affected by climate change.

In her speech she said: "Historically, Africans are responsible for only 3% of emissions, and yet some of us are suffering some of the most brutal impacts fuelled by the climate crisis.

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"Even limiting global temperature rises to 1.5°C would not be safe for many communities in Africa. 1.2C is already hell for us. It’s already destruction. It’s already suffering. It’s already disaster. Any rise will only make things worse."

Her book, A Bigger Picture. My Fight to bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, has shed light on the importance of more input from the Global South in the climate change conversation, diversity challenges and how the youth needs to be more involved. She also touched on how being erased made her feel.

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“I remember the feelings of frustration, heartbreak and anger I had because of what had happened. When I think about it now, it still feels really emotional; it’s like reliving the experience of what happened.”

Her focus on making more young Africans aware of what climate is and what it means for them, has made her one of the most important voices in the continent. She roped in her siblings to follow the Thunberg model of skipping school so that they bring more awareness of climate change and how it stands to affect Africans even more.

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In an interview with NPR, she said: "Many young people … young adults, very many teenagers, very many children are worried about the reality of the climate crisis. They are worried about the kind of future that they are walking into. And sometimes it can be challenging for very many young people because they can get frustrated. It is sad because young people are seeing how much their lives are in danger. But again, it's also helpful because they are not keeping silent about it. They are speaking up. They are mobilising and they are sending messages out, demanding for a future that rightfully belongs to them."

She was recently on the cover of Time magazine, was featured in British Vogue and took part in a panel discussion hosted by the New York Times on the importance of girls’ education and how it could accelerate climate action.

She's gone from being the girl who was cropped out of a picture at Davos, to the voice of young Africans in the global fight against climate change. She changed the narrative around how she was perceived and refused to be a footnote, an also-ran, of her counterparts. She and her fellow African activitists – Uganda’s Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, Kenya’s Elizabeth Wathuti, and Nigerian activist Adenike Oladosu – are important voices in Africa’s battle. It’s time we joined them.

This article first appeared in Sunday Insider, Nov 28, 2021