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Vanessa Nakate: ‘The climate issue is the biggest threat that is facing our lives right now’

Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate talks about unexpectedly finding herself on the frontline of climate activism

“Earth is our home – our responsibility,” Vanessa Nakate tells The Big Issue.  

The 25-year-old is a climate activist from Kampala, Uganda. Her powerful speeches and charisma have made her one of the most prominent activists from Africa.

Deforestation, heat waves and pollution are just some of the biggest threats to our planet and Africa is the continent most vulnerable to climate change.  

A recent report from World Bank’s Goundwell Africa predicted that by 2050, 86 million Africans will be forced to migrate to another country.  

For Nakate, her journey began in 2018 when she witnessed the disastrous impact of climate change after floods, droughts, and landslides hit her country. 

She knew she had to take action immediately.  

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“After being inspired by Greta, I also started striking every Friday. My very first climate strike was in the first week of January in 2019,” she says. 

The activist staged a solo protest outside Uganda’s Parliament. It didn’t take long before she attracted the attention of activists, politicians and the media. 

“When I started the climate strikes, there were mixed reactions,” she explains. “People saying climate change is not real; why are you doing climate strikes? You’re wasting time. You should look for a job, or you should get married instead of standing on the streets.”

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Since then, Nakate has grown a following of 165,000 on Instagram and has the support of an army of devoted fans, world leaders, and celebrities. 

Less than a year from her first protest in Kampala, she was invited to COP25 in Madrid.  

Fast forward to COP26 in Glasgow where she gave a powerful speech alongside Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. Nakate said world leaders have not been “faithful” and “honest” in their promises in fulfilling their duty to save the planet.

Vanessa Nakate speaking at COP26 in Glasgow. Image: IFAD
Vanessa Nakate speaking at COP26 in Glasgow. Image: IFAD

Being at the forefront of COP26 was an incredible achievement but her experience of the summit was not one she anticipated.  

“I remember this celebration in the halls that things were getting better then on the outside people are saying: No, things are not getting better, the decisions they’re making – only going to make things worse.  

“On our climate tracker show that we are on a pathway of 2.4 degrees Celsius. And, to me that is a death sentence for so many communities. 

“Even after all these 26 COPS, global temperatures continue to rise, the climate crisis continues to escalate, and disasters continue to unfold – people continue to suffer.” 

In February 2020, Nakate attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where she called upon governments, companies, and banks to stop subsidising fossil fuels. She was in attendance alongside Greta Thunberg and three other white European activists. The Associated Press published a photo with Vanessa edited out, sparking widespread outrage about the racial bias of black voices.  

She later tweeted: “You didn’t just erase a photo, you erased a continent, But I am stronger than ever.” 

Ask Nakate how climate change activism can be inclusive to all, and her answer is simple.

“Respect every voice, community, and experience. Every activist has a story to tell and every story has a solution to give – every solution has a life to change.” 

Nakate is the founder of the Rise Up Movement and a member of Fridays For Future. She goes into schools, inspiring the next generation to be at the centre of momentum in tackling the climate crisis.  

“Many young people, especially in schools, know what climate change is, but they may not really understand that it’s actually happening now, and it’s impacting so many lives,” she explains. “Going to schools has really been one way of creating as much awareness as possible.” 

While Greta Thunberg was one of her inspirations early on in her climate activism, along the way she found inspiration from other activists. 

“I got to know more about the work of Wangari Maathai and be inspired by the great work that she did for the African continent when it comes to the environment,” she says.  

Last autumn Nakate released her first book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight To Bring A New African Voice To The Climate Crisis, a memoir of her activism journey alongside the stories of many other African activists. 

Her new fame in the book world is all a bit surreal: “I’m still getting used to saying that I’m an author, it’s still very new to me – and also very strange,” she says.

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