Ugandan Business Student Brings Climate Strike To Central Africa: Meet Vanessa Nakate

Vanessa on strike outside the Ugandan Parliament building. (Photo by @Vash4Change/Twitter)

Vanessa Nakate is a 21-year-old student and environmental activist in Nakawa, Uganda. Climate change is a relatively new issue for Vanessa, who grew concerned about its effects after her uncle explained the drastic difference between temperatures and weather events in Uganda today and those just twenty years ago, and the damaging impact the winter heat has had on local farmers.

Vanessa Nakate is a 21-year-old student and environmental activist in Nakawa, Uganda. Climate change is a relatively new issue for Vanessa, who grew concerned about its effects after her uncle explained the drastic difference between temperatures and weather events in Uganda today and those just twenty years ago, and the damaging impact the winter heat has had on local farmers. According to a 2016 country report by Future Climate for Africa, the frequency of hot days in Uganda increased by 20% between 1960 and 2010. Temperatures are projected to rise between .9 and 3.3 degrees Celsius by the 2060’s, depending on emissions and other factors.

After researching the work of climate activists throughout the world, Vanessa came across Greta’s #FridaysForFuture strike on Twitter, and she convinced four of her siblings to join her for a Sunday climate strike on January 5th, at shopping destinations across the city. She has made the Sunday strike a weekly affair in addition to her regular #FridaysForFuture strikes. We caught up with Vanessa to better understand what pushed her to launch her own regular climate strikes, and how she intends to help grow the climate justice movement in Uganda, and hopefully, she says, throughout Africa.

The Kids Are All Right: At what point did you start thinking about climate change?

Vanessa Nakate: One day I was talking to an uncle of mine and he was telling me about how the climate was twenty years back. And it was so disturbing to realize that a lot has changed. He told me that in the 90’s during January, farmers loved this month because it used to rain. It would be good for the crops they planted. But when you look at the January of this time, it is very hot, it is the complete opposite of January of 1990-something. After that I decided to do research. I wanted to find out how people were talking about climate in their countries. That’s when I got to find Greta and I was so impressed. And decided I have to do this for my country.

TKAAR: What environmental issues are most relevant to you and your family and friends in Nakawa?

VN: I started connecting many things and I realized that many problems have been happening due to these drastic climate changes. Actually recently there was a mighty wind in my country. Electricity was cut off for a whole day. But of course people took it lightly. They didn’t talk about what could have caused this wind. When you read about global warming you realize that it was a clear sign of the effects of climate change.

TKAAR: Did you read about the weather event in the news? Or were you out in the storm?

VN: I was at work and I looked outside and suddenly everything was blowing, trees, those billboards on the roads, it threw some of them. It was very serious. Fences were torn down. The rain was so heavy for an hour. When it happened I was in Kampala, only to later realize it was also happening all over. It was crazy.

TKAAR: Have you seen anything like that before in Uganda?

VN: No, never. And there was a blackout the whole night and the following day in some places because of that.

TKAAR: Can you talk a little bit about climate change awareness in Uganda in general? Are your friends talking about these issues as well?

VN: When it comes to my friends, most of them support me. But then of course, there’s the ones that laugh about it. They say how can I just go and stand and just hold a poster – like how can I do that? Because there’s always people who put you down. But you just have to stand your ground…my parents they don’t even know about it. I do it alone.

TKAAR: Are there any issues that you plan to focus on in particular through your activism?

VN: Banning polysin. You go to the supermarket, you buy something and you put it in polysin. And I want to tell people the problems that we are facing because of climate change….They think things just happen because they have to happen, but they don’t realize that there are things that cause them to happen.

TKAAR: Do you learn about environmental issues in grade school?

VN: I remember in geography, but it was just one topic about forests and how they work.

TKAAR: How has your family reacted to your strike?

Vanessa and her siblings on strike in Nakawa, Uganda.

VN: They really don’t know about it except my siblings. So I really don’t know how they will react. Maybe if they see me somewhere then they’ll find out. But if I tell them now, and they may not like the whole thing and they may try to stop me, which I don’t want.

TKAAR: So you’re not telling them that you’re doing it and just going for it?

VN: Yes I’m just doing it without telling them. I think they would want me to stop. Because they have this thing…’you’re going against the government’ which would maybe worry them.

TKAAR: Have you faced any other negative reactions from friends or co-workers or other people you see every day?

VN: I told close friends and they supported it….others asked me a very funny question: What are you going to gain from that? Why do you have to do that? It’s not a business – you’re not going to get anything from it so you’re wasting your time.

TKAAR: Is there anyone you’re aware of that lives near you that kind of see’s on your wavelength and that you have as an ally in this?

VN: Most of my support is on the internet actually on Twitter. But the act of physical support is not really there because I have to look for money for the signs. And then convincing someone to go with me to the strike. Some people are very shy. Others don’t want to be seen holding posters. Probably they feel like it embarasses them. Those are my main challenges. Then maybe work.

TKAAR: It seems like the most frequent protesters are in Europe. I’ve been looking for Fridays For Future strikes in Africa, Asia or the Middle East and you’re the first one that I’ve found. What is your perception of who is participating in these strikes?

VN: It’s really amazing to see that the numbers are really big in Europe. And I wish that the young generation in Africa would also pick up and fight for their future. Because it’s our future. But I think the problem is that most of them are either not confident enough or they don’t have the knowledge about it. Or their parents can’t let them do it. And some actually fear the government. But I’m really impressed by Europe. I’m seeing on Twitter there are many, many activists. And I really look for activists in Africa, I’ve really been looking.

TKAAR: And have you found any?

VN: No, I haven’t.

TKAAR: I haven’t either. I’m curious if they’re out there and using other platforms. Or just organizing and not on social media.

VN: I really don’t how they’d do it. Because I’ve searched on the internet. I’ve tried to look for them because they would be my motivation. But the only people you see are from Europe. It’s really heartbreaking that we are not doing anything about the climate. We have to stand together. One of my goals is to encourage African youth – teenagers or younger children – to stand with me and do this in Africa. To let it be a movement of climate action in Africa the way it is in Europe.

TKAAR: How did you siblings respond when you took them out on Sunday? Did they have fun, did they complain?

VN: At first they were scared. Because they had never done it. But then I also told them I had never done it. It was the first time for all of us. I went on to tell them that they are the only people doing it in Africa, which is really a privilege and I encouraged them until they felt comfortable enough to do it. And by the end of the strike they just couldn’t wait for the next strike. So on Sunday we are striking again with them.

TKAAR: Are you planning on doing Sundays and Fridays indefinitely?

VN: Yes I am.

TKAAR: You’ve mentioned that you think your family might be worried about your safety going out to strike and what not. Do you have any fears about being vocal about climate change?

VN: No, nothing. The only thing that worries me is people not joining me. That’s my only problem. Because some have not been encouraged or motivated enough. But as for me, I’m not scared.

TKAAR: Are you reaching out to other people in Uganda or in other parts of Africa to ask them to join you?

VN: I have a friend who is helping me with social media because he has very many followers on social media. And then I want to start a Facebook page so that I can reach others through Facebook and Instagram.

TKAAR: Are there particular issues that your friends and family are more focused on rather than climate change? Politics? Day-to-day life?

VN: I’ve noticed that people are more focused on politics than climate. And of course we have environmental organizations here. But I feel like they are not doing enough. They should advocate for every home to have at least one tree.

TKAAR: Do you have a message for any other young people who might be focused on other things?

VN: In my country, young people are driven by what happens on social media. Like, people love social media so much but I think it would be better if they used it for a purpose. You find someone with many followers but they just use their account for photos, videos, but nothing educational, or nothing to give people awareness about the problems we are facing… Join us in this fight against climate change…because, twenty years from now, it may not be a conducive place for us or for wildlife.

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