The climate crisis in Africa is hitting hard. Vanessa Nakate strikes for more climate justice, stands up for Africa and fights for the suffering of the people to be seen and therefore supports the growing of a global society.
Some call her the "Greta of Africa" because she strikes for climate justice and raises her voice. But Vanessa Nakate has long since dispensed with the comparison to the Swedish climate activist.
"When I was little, I was a very shy and scared girl. But I heard my father and others talking about the rain." That's how Vanessa Nakate began her speech in Hamburg at the end of June, when she was presented with the Helmut Schmidt Future Prize. Since January 2019, the 25-year-old business administration graduate has been demonstrating for more climate awareness in her home country of Uganda, where knowledge about the climate crisis is often scanty. And for climate justice. Under the slogan "Show us the money," she reminds the civil society of promised aid from the industrialized countries, whose emissions are responsible for the climate crisis.
Drought and flood - the rain in Uganda
She talks and writes about the rain, because it changes Uganda. Either because it fails to come or because it leads to floods. "People in Africa are already suffering some of the most brutal impacts of the climate crisis - yet the entire African continent is responsible for less than four percent of global emissions," she said in her speech.
The year 2018 was marked by severe weather events in East Africa. Half a million people were affected, with massive flooding, destroyed crops, drowned goats and cows. 12,000 people lost their homes in landslides. In other regions, however, the rains failed to materialize, now for the second year in a row.
As Vanessa delves deeper into the issues after completing her studies, she is appalled at how little is known about the connections in her country. Her Uncle Charles finally speaks up: "We have to do something - for the sake of the environment and for the sake of young people." And Vanessa does take action. In her online research, she also came across Greta Thunberg, and is fascinated by this girl who is younger than she is and yet dares to take to the streets. In Uganda, this requires even more courage. For not only are social norms about what young women can and cannot do much tighter. Public demonstrations are also hardly tolerated.
Sometimes they are broken up arbitrarily by the police with the help of batons and tear gas.
But Vanessa knows too much by now and feels the will to do something for her country. One Saturday, she decides to take to the streets. She feels a connection to the global Fridays for Future movement - but now she doesn't want to wait until Friday. She motivates her two younger brothers and three cousins, they paint signs and set off early the next day. They set up at four strategically chosen locations in their hometown of Kampala - markets and busy intersections - and post photos of them on their social media channels. When Greta Thunberg surprisingly shares their photos, the likes skyrocket.
Invitation to New York
The following Friday, she wants to start a real Fridays strike - and since no one else has time, she goes off on her own until she is relieved to meet an old friend who joins her. But after a few weeks of solo strikes, the frustration takes over that she is rarely accompanied by anyone and few people can relate to the messages on her signs. "The more personally involved I became, the greater the pain of the fact that publicly, virtually no one in my country seemed to be responding to the overriding emergency," she looks back. For two weeks she struggles, cries, stays in her room - but then she just keeps going anyway. Vanessa protests, alone, in pairs, sometimes talks to interested passers-by, sometimes to students on campus, posts her activities. A brave beginning, nothing big. Until an e-mail from New York lands in her inbox. An email from the UN Secretary General's office: she's been invited to the Youth Climate Summit in New York. She's never traveled alone before, let alone flown. The trip with little money in her pocket is an adventure and she herself is only one of the few participants from the African continent there. She now knows that people have taken notice of her commitment and that she is gaining experience and helpful contacts, albeit not all of them positive.
The photo and its consequences
In January 2020, the next invitation will follow, this time to Davos for the "Arctic Basecamp" during the World Economic Forum. As activists, they use this camp to draw attention to the fact that the Arctic has warmed twice as fast as the rest of the Earth over the past thirty years.
And then comes that ominous day that offends and angers them, but also makes them famous. Together with four other - white - activists, she speaks at a press conference and photographers snap pictures of the five of them in front of a mountain panorama. But when the picture appears at the Associated Press agency, Vanessa is missing. The image is cropped. "For compositional reasons," as the agency later informs. Behind Vanessa a building had been visible, which allegedly disturbed the optics. Vanessa promptly responds with a video in which she explains, "You didn't just erase one person from a photo. You've erased an entire continent."
All the world looks to the North - no one to Africa
After protest from many parts of the globe, the agency apologizes and now publishes the uncropped image. But the feeling remains that as an activist from the Global South, she has been denied the chance to have her message and the situation in her country heard around the world, because even the fight against the climate crisis revolves around the West.
She is struck by how much this is the case when she hears about the destruction of the Congo rainforest. The fact that the Amazon rainforest is being cut down and the devastating consequences of this is a worldwide topic. That the Congo Basin is home to the second largest rainforest and is as valuable as it is threatened was not even clear to her. It strikes her: In 2019 and 2020, people in Uganda were also well informed about the devastating bushfires in Australia and the U.S. - what happens in their own country, on the other hand, is known to very few of her countrymen. In the media, too, everything is focused on the global North. And once again, Vanessa's drive shows, and she decisively organizes a strike for the much too unknown Congo rainforest, which draws circles.
The aid organization CARE has listed: Nine out of ten of the crises that received the most neglected coverage in 2019 occurred in Africa. Vanessa wants to counter this. She is founding the Rise-up Climate Movement to unite and amplify African voices for a sustainable lifestyle and more awareness. At the same time, she is involved in the Vash Green Schools Project, which aims to equip schools in Uganda with solar panels.
Vanessa Nakate's motivation for her tireless advocacy for climate justice comes from her experience that the shared commitment of countless young people in a global movement makes a difference.