Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg has become the symbol of youth climate activism around the world. But there are many young climate activists in Africa who, while drawing inspiration from Thunberg, are working to highlight the vulnerability of a continent that has contributed little to the global climate crisis. Too often, they say, they are ignored by the media.
This was drawn into sharp focus last month when 23-year-old Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate was cropped out of a photo standing alongside four white school climate activists, including Thunberg, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, by the Associated Press (AP), sparking outrage. In a video, Nakate described it as ‘the first time in my life that I understood the definition of the word racism’.
She tweeted to AP: ‘You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent. But I am stronger than ever.’ AP later said it regretted the incident.
This week, Sheree Bega spoke to young environmental activists on the continent about their work.
Africa picking up the fight for justice
Ugandan Vanessa Nakate doesn’t want to be known as the “cropped out climate activist”. It’s not how the 23-year-old identifies herself and the description carries unpleasant memories. Rather, know the founder of the Africa-based Rise Up Movement for her climate activism, she implores.
Hers is a fight for climate justice. “African people are suffering the wrath of climate change now. It’s no longer Fridays for Future to us. It’s Fridays for Now. Therefore, every African activist needs to be listened to because we all have a story to tell.” After Nakate finished high school, she wanted to do something that would improve the lives of Ugandans. “I found out that climate change was a major challenge and that was when I started striking for climate.”
In October 2019, she read about forests. “That’s when I found out that the Congo rainforest was the largest rainforest in Africa. I read about its destruction and its endangered species. This triggered me to start striking for the forest and create awareness for it.”
One of her tweets reads: “The Amazon burns and the whole world talks about it! ... Congo rainforest burns and a young girl talks about it. People are actually dying in Africa. But if these news companies don’t talk about the fires in Africa, it is sad.”
Her fight, too, is ensuring that other environmental activists and communities suffering from extreme weather are recognised. Most African countries do not have the money to adapt to modern solutions to climate change “and that is why we need to preserve our forests, the largest carbon sinks. It is important for the youth to rise up and demand climate action because a secured future rightfully belongs to us”.
While there is a growing movement of climate strikes in Uganda and elsewhere on the continent, “our main challenge is striking in large numbers,” she says, citing fears of arrest.
Nakate started the Rise Up Movement to help amplify voices of activists from the continent. It runs in countries including Uganda, Kenya, Somalia, Nigeria, Malawi, Togo, Zambia and Senegal. A local chapter has been started too.
In December, she attended the UN climate talks in Madrid, which ended in a deadlock. “It gave me an opportunity to meet other activists and to pressurise our government leaders through strikes and demonstrations. It was disappointing because we expected a lot after a year of activism but our leaders failed us.
“Greta and other climate activists are my greatest support and motivation. They know what they want and are not ready to back down. This is inspiring and motivating. They push me to fight more each day.”
In Uganda, climate change is causing an uneven distribution of rainfall, characterised by heavy rains and landslides. “Many lives are destroyed after such disasters, with no hope for the future.
"Flooding has become a song in various parts of Uganda, leaving unimaginable pain and suffering for the victims of climate change.”
But many people remain ignorant. “They do not know that we are in a climate crisis therefore it’s hard for them to believe in climate activism.”
Congo’s green lung defender
In a photo accompanying Remy Zahiga’s tweet on December 21, he holds a small sheet of cardboard, declaring, “Save the planet. Save the Congo fauna and flora”. The 24-year-old lives in the Congo Basin, “which is home to 80 million people who depend on it for everything.
“But deforestation and fires are on the rise. I’ve been striking for 172 days but voices from Francophone are hardly heard. All my life is depending on Congo rainforest,” his tweet reads. Zahiga, 24, of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), says the Congo Basin, as the second largest forest in the world, is the globe’s “second lung”, but it is being destroyed by rampant deforestation.
“When I was at university, we learnt the importance of forests on the reduction of carbon dioxide emitted in the atmosphere in order for the climate to remain intact,” says Zahiga, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in earth sciences in geology.
“Throughout the world, these forests are not protected. There are regulations on the protection of wildlife and fauna (but) these are not always respected.”
A 2018 study by the University of Maryland found that the Congo Basin could disappear by 2100, predominantly because of small-scale clearing for subsistence agriculture. That’s a grim fate unimaginable to Zahiga.
“The DRC has 80 million inhabitants who depend on this basin for agriculture, livestock, water and fresh air. (If the Congo basin disappears) that will cause the extinction of everyone who depends on it.” Zahiga’s social media activism has garnered support across the world.
“The campaign brings together many activists from other continents. I thank these activists who, despite not being in Congo, understood the danger. Africans have not yet understood that we are in a climate emergency.
"Being an activist in Africa is a danger because some leaders believe that our campaigns go in the opposite direction of their will. No Congolese leader has recognised our work because the media are not interested in us,” says Zahiga, adding how the voices of African environmental activists are ignored. “Activists are always targets in African countries, especially for us who advocate for the protection of the Congo Basin.
"While the woods of this basin feed the developed countries and their companies, African people refuse to join activism because there is no coverage and in many African countries, human rights are not respected.
“Africa emits less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (than other parts of the world) but it is the most vulnerable to the climate crisis. “The climate crisis has an impact on famine, the destruction of road infrastructure, loss of human life and the extinction of species.”
Calling Africans to protect environment
A humanitarian and an environmental and climate activist – that’s how 27-year-old Nigerian Goodness Dickson describes himself.
As the chief executive of the EcoClean Foundation, Dickson started his activism six years ago on social media while studying geography and then IT in 2015.
“My educational background in the field of environmental science made me take that drastic step.”
In January 2019, he was inspired to use social media for environmental activism when he saw Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, eight-yearold Indian climate activist Licypriya Kangujam, Ugandan Vanessa Nakate, Kenyan environmental activist Elizabeth Wathuti and other youngsters, do the same.
For Dickson, his activism serves as a voice to all Africans to take urgent action to address the global climate crisis now. “The weather condition of the school where I obtained my first degree has the highest temperature at about 47°C. That alone is enough to speak out and lend my voice. More people are now getting involved and more awareness is been created.”
Though the AP photo cropping incident of Nakate was racist, it has helped put a spotlight on the work of sidelined young African activists. “I strongly believe it created more awareness to our climate activism in Africa and Nigeria,” says Dickson.
“The challenges that I and other African climate activists are facing is the role of the media. They need to be professional in reporting and also try amplify our voices so that leaders in authority can take drastic action immediately. In Nigeria, the response to his work is minimal. “The government is not really considering the environment as one of the major challenges.
"The biggest issues are funding and awareness. “I run an organisation that will be a means of reaching out to more people and also in carrying out environmental projects in Nigeria, but we have less to no funding or support from government, NGOs and philanthropists.”
Teen puts climate case in Davos
Climate change is linked to other problems like poverty, inequality, xenophobia and gender-based violence, climate activist Ayakha Melithafa, 17, told the 50th annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos last month.
The Grade 12 student at the Centre of Science and Technology in Khayelitsha was invited to attend the meeting to represent South Africa, sharing a stage alongside other youth activists, including Sweden’s Greta Thunberg.
“It’s really giving me hope that people are starting to listen to us and understand that the future is ours and that we’re starting to take charge of it right now,” she told the meeting.
Addressing youth climate activists, she said: “Never give up in your fight, know that what you’re doing you’re doing for a reason – the end goal will be sweet.” In Davos, she used her platform to inspire social and climate activism in her community, speaking out against the country’s polluters."
She also called on the government to cut its carbon emissions and plan a just transition.
Ayakha is a recruitment officer and spokesperson for the African Climate Alliance, a youth-led climate advocacy group.
She is also a graduate of Project 90 by 2030’s YouLead Initiative. She received a bronze President’s Award for Youth Empowerment medal last year.
In September, she was among a group of 16 children, including Thunberg, Alexandria Villaseñor, Carl Smith and Catarina Lorenzo, who filed a groundbreaking legal complaint to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Their petition was directed at the biggest climate polluters among the signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The petition documents how in early 2018 Cape Town residents prepared for Day Zero, when water would have been switched off to a city of nearly 4 million residents. “We had to buy water. We had to take shorter showers. We had to be really cautious."
The climate changes Ayakha is experiencing in Cape Town make her feel “sad and angry” and she thinks of a “miserable future”.
In September, the climate activist told the Saturday Star: “The world is starting to listen to us and more old people have stopped seeing what we are doing as a rebellious act."
‘African leaders must respond to climate change’
Meeting a young girl in eastern Uganda who was forced to raise her siblings after their parents were killed in floods and landslides pushed Mulindwa Guy into climate activism. “I couldn’t imagine the unspoken suffering they were going through and the more people I talked to the more I found out that they were not alone,” says Guy, 23, of that encounter a year ago.
“So many people have lost their children, partners or their property.” When Guy returned home, he started researching the increased landslides, floods and droughts in different parts of Uganda."
“I found out that this was due to climate change, though to my shock these impacts were not only hitting hard on Uganda but Africa as a continent.” That’s when he started his lone climate strike – he is now on week 20 – and his campaign for the environment “to create massive awareness and wake our leaders up to take sufficient action now because our future depends on it”.
Guy strikes every Friday for #FridaysForFuture and every Saturday for #SaveCongoRainforest and #TwoTreesAWeek. “It’s very unfortunate that there are literally no reports about the climate and ecological crisis in the media, which has kept the population ignorant and leaders are taking advantage of this not to take action,” says Guy, who is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in human resource management.
The continent contributes the least to global carbon emissions “yet the atrocities associated with climate change have become immense and costly. The greatest problem in Africa right now is the denial that climate change is real and the overwhelming ignorance of the population about climate change. There’s no way you can solve a problem that you think doesn’t exist or that you don’t know about.
"My activism is to create massive awareness about climate change and the magnitude of its impacts across Africa.”
Last September, he started a tree-planting campaign to fight deforestation.
“I’m striking to protect what’s left of nature. We have to restore what has been lost.”
He visits schools and teaches students about climate change but says while the voices of African environmental activists are emerging more loudly, national and international media outlets “ignore” them. “Most of the countries in Africa can’t let activists hold climate strikes in large numbers to create massive awareness.
"Political leaders easily connect the climate strikes to their political fights, which leads to arrests or (to getting) tear-gassed.”
Guy has lost friends striking for the environment. “They say they can no longer associate with me because I stand on the roadside and hold signs and sometimes talk to the public. They say they are ashamed.”
But he has great responses, “especially from victims of impacts of climate change when I am planting trees with them”.
Uganda’s forest cover has shrunk in the past three decades.
“People are carrying out deforestation on a large scale, polluting land and water with plastic and reclaiming swamps for agribusiness, which has led to increased floods, landslides in some parts of the country and more droughts than ever before in most parts of the country.”
African leaders, he says, have failed to accurately portray the climate and ecological crisis to the population.
Zimbabwe's young global climate activist and entrepreneur
Cuthbert Mukora grew up in a part of Zimbabwe that has been hit hard by the climate crisis and environmental emergencies. "Chiredzi is one of the hottest climate zones of Zimbabwe and is characterised by heat waves, perennial droughts and other climate shocks," says Mukora, the regional coordinator for the Thought For Food Foundation.
Here, young people are trapped in "absolute poverty and under-employment, having begun to lose their jobs in the rain-fed agricultural sector of our local economy.
"Many of the youth are largely participating in the destruction of our environment due to endemic poverty and unemployment," he says. "Youth in my community were engaging in unsustainable livelihoods such as cutting down trees to sell firewood, brick moulding, which also causes massive deforestation in our community, illicit beer brewing, which also requires loads of wood fuel, as well as fish poisoning, just to sell and earn some income.
"I felt that in as much as we are major victims of the climate crisis, we cannot take this as an excuse to harm our environment and planet just to live for now.
"This planet is all we have got and it’s our future, which means we have to protect and save it. Climate is affecting us every day and if I do not take bold action to deal with it, it will deal with me and not only me alone, but the next generations."
Since 2014, Mukora has worked as a young global climate activist and entrepreneur. "I'm working with various organisations to tackle the climate and environmental emergency at local, regional and global levels.
"These are defining issues of our times whose impact are largely affecting us as children and young people not only in Africa but the world over."
Young people on the continent, he says, are living in front-line communities that are "disproportionately" affected.
"Our voices as major climate victims are very important to influence climate action. Whether our leaders listen to us or not, we have the right to speak out so we can protect our present and future. There is no other planet. This is the only one we have got."
His climate activism is focused on ensuring that youth-led ideas, innovations and start-ups that have the potential to tackle climate change whilst creating decent job opportunities for young people, are prioritised.
Mukora also works as the head of programmes at the Rural Enterprise Trust of Zimbabwe promoting climate-smart enterprising investments and innovations and is the president of Net Impact Harare Professional.
Last year, he was invited by the UN Office of the Special Envoy of the Secretary-General of the 2019 Climate Action Summit to attend the first ever youth Climate Summit at the UN headquarters and joined the historic climate strike in New York on September 20.
"I do believe the voices of climate and environmental activists are emerging louder and strongly now especially given internet freedom and digital literacy, which has allowed us to share our work and convey our climate messages.
"Through social media, many other youth climate activists have been able to educate each other about climate change and environmental issues, and also to reach out to our policy makers and other activists around the world.
"Our leaders do not understand that by investing in climate action and environmental innovations, and attracting young people into these, there is opportunity to address the multiple challenges of youth unemployment, poverty and climate change.
"Our leaders and policy makers still don't understand that both adaptation to climate change and measures to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions can offer opportunities to create new jobs, while increasing the resilience of existing ones."
Through his work, children and young people are grasping the concept of climate change and environmental emergency in Zimbabwe and on the continent. "I'm creating climate awareness in grassroots communities, awareness on mitigation and adaptation, and also on climate innovation and entrepreneurship.
"Zimbabwe is a beautiful country, which is facing the adverse impacts of climate change, just like any African country - climate shocks such as droughts, heat waves, low and unreliable rainfalls, which are sporadic and cyclones have seriously disabled our local communities.
"Climate change is also severely affecting our bread and butter issues and causing youth poverty and high unemployment. Youth are migrating to our neighbouring countries in search of the assumed 'greener pastures’, which are not necessarily there. Other youth who chose to remain behind especially in rural areas are engaging in unsustainable livelihood alternatives."
Zimbabwe's disaster management system, he adds, is not well-equipped technically and financially to deal with climate change emergencies such as the recent Cyclone Idai.
"Children and young people are largely regarded as passive recipients of support who cannot actively proffer sound solutions to the climate and environmental question. Africa and the world still see us as leaders of tomorrow yet we are leaders of today.
"We are only engaged in consultations in some processes but not in real decision making. The sooner we are made to be the co-decision makers with our leaders, we can move mountains in tackling climate change and environmental issues."
Sierra Leone's Mansaray inspired by Thunberg
Roseline Isata Mansaray was inspired by young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to start striking for the climate, but she has "my own story to tell".
Mansaray, the leader of Fridays For Future Sierra Leone, has "tasted the bitterness of climate change", she says. "I live in Kroobay in Freetown near the sea, where the entire community dumps their garbage. When it rains, poor drainage leads to heavy flooding.
"People lose their properties, children die, old men and women also lose their lives - some get injured and others are carried away by water. People lose their businesses, their finance.
"This is really touching and heartrending and that's why I'm demanding action towards an immediate climate emergency."
She raises awareness about the climate crisis and its consequences. "Africa contributes very little to emissions but it is suffering the most so we the African activists are more than determined to fight for our future and the future of generations to come. We are more than ready to raise our voices so that they can be heard."
But in Sierra Leone, climate activism is not visible in the media.
"The world climate change is new to many people so it becomes very challenging to talk about it as it is not taught in schools. Also the few people who know about it do not want to act. Inactive leaders, inactive corporate organisations, police, everyone is inactive."
Still, the negative responses she receives make her "stronger" and "more determined".
In Sierra Leone, the environmental problems are immense, says Mansaray. "The temperature is rising, there's a lack of trees, stone mining, air pollution from the burning of trees, poor drainage. That's why I'm calling upon the government, policymakers, government agencies and corporate organisations to act. Prevention is better than cure."