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Climate activist Vanessa Nakate: ‘I was ready for anything’ 

When Vanessa Nakate, a shy young Ugandan living in Kampala, took it upon herself to protest against inaction on climate change, it did not come naturally. As a schoolgirl she had dreaded standing up to speak to her class. The idea of parading herself in public in a society where women knelt before their elders, where political protests were violently suppressed, and where climate change was not a priority, filled her with trepidation.

It wasn’t even the right day. Supporters of the #FridaysForFuture movement catalysed by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg skipped school on Fridays. But it was already Saturday when Nakate, a 22-year-old graduate from the Makerere University Business School, felt stirred to action. She resolved to strike the very next day, rounding up her younger brothers, then 10 and 14, and three cousins.

Using art paper and marker pens, they fashioned placards calculated not to overly provoke, bearing slogans such as “Trees are important for us” and “Nature is life”. The most cutting was “Thanks for the global warming”. 

“I was really scared and my brothers and cousins were also really scared,” she says of the moment they set out on to the verdant and congested streets of Kampala. They began the first of four 30-minute protests (Nakate set her phone alarm) at Kitintale Market, where motorbikes, cars and taxi-minibuses thundered past stallholders peddling millet bread, groundnuts, watermelons, onions and tomatoes.

Nakate says she was so nervous she couldn’t feel her legs, though the ragtag protest elicited nothing more threatening than a few curious glances. “We went home and we were feeling very happy,” she tells me, eyes twinkling.

Now, two and a half years later, Nakate is an online global celebrity. This week she is at COP26 alongside Thunberg and other leading activists. Willingly or otherwise, she is transformed into a spokesperson on climate change for an entire continent of 1.3bn people. I’ve flown to Kampala (round-trip C02 emissions 362.98kg) to see her.

We meet at Africa Hot Pot, a restaurant in Kampala’s Buganda Road serving local dishes such as goat stew, beans, posho (a maize porridge), and matoke (a pounded green banana that is a Ugandan staple). I arrived early, brought by a well-spoken Uber driver, an unemployed teacher who hadn’t taught since schools were closed because of Covid-19 some 18 months ago. He had not heard of Nakate.

The place was empty. Some of the waitresses, dressed in lurid orange uniforms, were asleep, heads rested on the faux marble tables. The room was the size of a basketball court but low-ceilinged with fluorescent lighting that cast a pallid glare on the tiled interior. When Nakate arrives, we sit at a large round table set with toothpicks and a pint glass stacked with plastic straws.


Africa Hot Pot

PO Box 3479, Buganda Road, Kampala, Uganda

Matoke, potato, yam, beans, greens, rice USh18,000

Matoke, beans, cowpeas, yam, greens, rice USh18,000

Passion fruit juice x2 USh10,000

Tip USh5,000

Total USh51,000 (£10.47)

She salutes the chance to experience at a restaurant the food she eats at home — when she was a student it was considered cool to hang out at a foreign restaurant, such as KFC, she says. Her voice is quiet and hard to catch sometimes above the hubbub as diners arrive. In what sense was her protest a strike, I ask. Did she perhaps skip church? “Oh, no,” she replies. “Actually we went to church later on.”

The continent is responsible for less than 3 per cent of global emissions, yet finds itself threatened by a climate emergency. Recent years have seen a drought in Cape Town, a killer cyclone in Mozambique, flooding in the desert, the march of the Sahara, a plague of locusts; no single phenomenon can be pinned on man-made change, but collectively they point to what for many is an existential crisis.

Nakate’s uncle Charles had told her that Ugandan farmers, most of whom have no irrigation and rely on rainfall, had been baffled by recent weather patterns. For some that meant hunger. Nakate herself had noticed frequent floods in Kampala that she now attributes to climate change. One day, torrential rains pooled in the potholed streets, preventing her boda boda motorbike taxi from taking her to church. She read later in the newspaper that a young woman had nearly drowned at the same spot. These days, she avoids the location if it’s raining heavily. “What would I do? I can’t even swim.”

There are no menus, so I ask for recommendations. “I’ll have matoke. Potato one. And yam one,” she says decisively. “Do you have greens as well?” she asks the waitress, ordering some for us both. I settle on matoke, beans, cowpeas, yam and rice. We both ask for passion-fruit juice.

Nakate became a social media phenomenon in January 2020, about a year after her first Kampala protest. (Subsequent Friday strikes involved skipping duties at her father’s hardware store.) In 2020, she went to Davos and posed for cameras with four other environmental activists, all white. But when the photograph appeared, she had been cropped out.

In an outdoor location in Davos, Switzerland, Nakate stands on the far left, next to fellow climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille
Vanessa Nakate with fellow activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille at Davos in 2020 — Nakate was cropped out when the image first appeared © Markus Schreiber/AP

In a 10-minute video, a thoroughly dejected Nakate, choking back sobs and struggling with the icy Swiss temperatures, expressed raw hurt: “Does that mean that I have no value as an African activist or the people from Africa don’t have any value at all?” 

“When I went back home, some of my friends didn’t know how much that was a serious issue,” she tells me. “They said: ‘It’s just a photo.’ But I saw something bigger. It wasn’t just my removal from a picture. There was something deeper: how we who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis are not on the front pages.”

At the restaurant, she looks an altogether different person — far more self-assured. She is wearing her hair short and is dressed in a spotless new leather jacket, pinstriped skirt and green T-shirt advertising her Pentecostalist church. I have brought a copy of her book, A Bigger Picture, released this week. In it she recounts her own warp-speed journey to international activism and lays out her views on what she sees as the corporate irresponsibility that has brought us to the brink. It is the first time she’s seen a copy. “Are you loving it?” she asks after admiring the purple cover on which she features, dead centre, megaphone in hand.

Nakate has recently edged towards vegetarianism, an unusual choice in Uganda, where eating meat is a mark of affluence. “I would really like to have a vegetarian wedding,” she says, conceding that it might scandalise her parents. “Weddings here are defined by chicken and meat — lots of it. If it runs out, some people might feel as though there had been no wedding at all.”

Our food arrives, two heaping plates of purple yam, bright yellow matoke and a hunk of potato and rice. It’s nothing if not colourful. The pinto beans and smaller black-and-white cowpeas come in a separate ceramic and tin dish.

“When I started activism, I didn’t know much about the impact of meat and dairy products,” she says as I spoon guilt-free beans on to my rice.

“I didn’t know much about the impact of flying, or oil or coal on the climate. I just knew that the climate crisis was causing floods and droughts but I had no idea about the specific things that were causing rising global emissions. It’s something that I got to learn as I continued with activism,” she says, chiselling into a slab of yam.

Nakate was brought up in Luzira suburb of Kampala. As a child, her mother, Anna, sometimes had little to eat other than porridge. Her father, Paul, an entrepreneur since his teens, is a member of the Rotary Club of Bugolobi and was recently elected mayor of Nakawa Division, one of five in Kampala.

She was no extrovert. “I loved solitude, being by myself most of the time. And even up to now, it is still something that I love,” she says. “I may come out in the morning to greet my parents, but then I can be in the room all day.”

Hasn’t that made it hard to stand in the spotlight, I ask, pouring cowpeas on to my pounded matoke to liven it up. “It’s hard to explain, but it’s like when I’m doing activism I’m a different person. I can find my voice more easily than if I’m having a normal chat with someone.”

Only a few months after she rallied her siblings and cousins to strike, she received a mysterious email inviting her to a Youth Climate Summit at the UN headquarters in New York. She thought it was a hoax. Only later, convinced it was genuine, did she embark on her first trip abroad.

“I remember getting into the plane and it was hard to find my seat. It was so funny,” she says of her confusion at the unfamiliar procedure. “People got in and started walking, so I was just following them until I reached the end of the plane and everybody was sitting and I realised we actually have a seat number.” 

After take-off, she couldn’t believe it when fellow travellers dozed off, apparently oblivious to the perils of air travel. “I didn’t want to sleep. I was scared. I just wanted to be on the lookout in case something happened.”

Things didn’t get any easier when she arrived in New York. No one was there to pick her up and she stood outside the terminal for more than an hour wondering what to do. Eventually she took a taxi, spending $70 of the $150 her father had given her “just in case”. She fretted about how she would pay for food, at one point discovering a free buffet at New York’s Uganda House, where she availed herself of “bread, tea and Irish potatoes”. She felt abandoned by the organisers and found the whole experience both exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Other trips followed. In Nigeria, she discovered like-minded activists — and spicy food. “Almost everything has chilli. Too spicy,” she says, puckering her lips. “But I really loved Nigeria.”

She has learnt fast. Her book is peppered with technical jargon about the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and concepts such as “intersectional environmentalism”, which links social and environmental injustice. She will be one of the lead activists at COP26 and, not long after our lunch, she addressed the Youth4Climate event in Milan at which fellow speaker Thunberg called time on “30 years of blah blah blah”. 

“Climate crisis is pushing millions of people into extreme poverty,” Nakate says. “Girls are being forced to get married,” she adds of a practice, exacerbated by economic hardship, that has led to hundreds of thousands of Ugandan girls being married off before the age of 15. “That’s why I like people to know how many of these things are interconnected. When I started activism, everything started to become more clear.” 

The clarity of youth has not shielded her from doubt, even depression. Back from Davos and facing a social media onslaught — much of it from fellow Ugandans, some of whom told her to shut up and get married — she deactivated her phone for weeks.

“I felt like no one was listening. It was a terrible moment. I just decided to switch off from the world. Here in Uganda you’ll find very few people pay attention to climate issues,” she says, prodding at her beans. “It’s hard to be a climate activist in my country.”

She returned energised — “ready for anything, ready for trolls, ready for inaction”. 

“I think I’ve learnt how to deal with it. Trolls will always be there saying bad things about you. Not everyone will like you or like the work that you’re doing. Some people don’t feel like you’re qualified. I remember at the time of the photo, some people said, ‘Leave activism for white people.’ And the time I wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, they were like, ‘Who is she?’”

She’s also written to Uganda’s ageing autocratic president, Yoweri Museveni, beseeching him to abandon a $15bn oil project that will pipe oil from Lake Albert on the Congolese border to the Tanzanian coast. Museveni says oil will propel Uganda to upper-middle-income status. She says it risks oil spills, destroying wild habitats that are home to elephants and hundreds of bird species, and will add to global emissions. “People before pipelines. We cannot drink oil,” she says, pausing to take a bite of potato.

I press her on precisely what she is advocating. An average Ugandan emits 0.13 tonnes of carbon a year, about 120 times less than the 15.5 tonnes needed to keep an American lifestyle going. Aren’t Ugandans emitting too little carbon, not too much? Isn’t their tiny carbon footprint a mark of poverty?

“I see what you mean,” she says. “But I think Ugandans can still access the necessities of life without harming the planet.”

As I dig into what’s left of the matoke, I wonder if she knows just what the affluent middle class in Europe, America and Asia considers the bare necessities of life: sushi delivered to their doorstep, a German car, a constantly updated wardrobe, a couple of foreign holidays a year. If you told the average Frenchman they would have to eat yam and cowpeas for the rest of their lives to avoid Armageddon, they’d mostly likely opt for filet mignon avec Armageddon.

“The western lifestyle, I don’t think it’s sustainable,” she concludes after giving it some thought. “But I think it’s important to understand that industries are responsible for the climate crisis: the fossil fuel industry, fashion, meat and dairy. It’s a matter of creating a system that ensures that all people are protected.”

Does this system have a name? She is not sure. But she knows that western countries will have to help create it: “You who are responsible for the climate crisis need to support countries in Africa, like Uganda, and in the global south, to transition.”

As a devout Christian, has she ever wondered why so many churchgoers are climate-change sceptics?

“Really?” she responds dubiously. “I think it’s actually in the Book of Genesis where God tells Adam to take care of the Earth, to nourish the Earth.”

She looks up a verse from the Book of Jeremiah on her phone: “How long will the land lie parched and the grass in every field be withered? Because those who live in it are wicked, the animals and the birds have perished.” 

Who are these “wicked” people? “People who are putting profits above people’s lives, people who have greed without putting consideration as to how much impact it is going to have.”

What remains of our food has gone cold. Outside, the afternoon temperature is rising. I ask if she worries that social media activism might not equate to real-world change.

No, she says, putting her phone back in her bag. “Those likes can amplify your voice. If it wasn’t for online activists, you wouldn’t be here.”

It’s true. I wouldn’t have flown all those miles. And, as she points out, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation”.

David Pilling is the FT’s Africa editor 

Data visualisation by Steven Bernard

More on Africa and the climate crisis . . . 

We are tired of waiting — Africa must be a priority for COP26

Democratic Republic of Congo president Félix Tshisekedi says there is a plan to help the continent adapt to climate change, but international support is needed

Until emissions are drastically cut, youth protests will continue

World leaders must heed calls from the young to act on climate crisis, writes activist Vanessa Nakate, who says that to her generation the crisis is all-consuming

Follow @ftweekend on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first

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