“Africa is on the front line but not on the front page”: Vanessa Nakate on her fight for the climate | Climate crisis

VAnessa Nakate knows what it’s like to be black and neglected. In January 2020, an Associated Press photographer cropped Nakate from a photo of young climate activists at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, leaving her friend Greta Thunberg and three other young white women in the photo .

It sparked widespread outrage, and rightly so, but Nakate sees this very personal experience as a symbol of how the voices and experiences of black — and brown and Indigenous — communities are routinely erased.

“Africa is on the frontline of the climate crisis, but it is not making the headlines of the world. Every activist who speaks out tells a story about themselves and their community, but if ignored, the world won’t know what’s really going on, what solutions are working. Erasing our voices is literally erasing our stories and what people cherish in their lives,” Nakate said.

Nakate is a 25-year-old thoughtful, intelligent and calm-spoken climate activist from Kampala, the capital of Uganda – one of the countries most at risk from climate disasters caused by global warming.

Climate activists Vanessa Nakate, Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson and Loukina Tille, left to right, in Davos, Switzerland, in 2020. Nakate was removed from the image when it was published. Photo: Markus Schreiber/AP

Two weather-related disasters have hit Uganda so far this year: at least 29 people have died and thousands have been displaced in the town of Mbale in eastern Uganda after heavy rains caused ripping two rivers out of their beds, submerging homes, shops and roads, and uprooting water pipes. . And in the northeast, around half a million people are at risk of starvation due to drought in Karamoja, where hundreds of people – mostly women and children – have already died.

Nakate recently traveled to neighboring Kenya with Unicef, the United Nations child relief and development agency, as its newest goodwill ambassador, a role also held by household names like Serena Williams. , Amitabh Bachchan, David Beckham and Katy Perry.

The experience of Turkana, one of the areas of northwest Kenya worst hit by a prolonged drought that has left more than 37 million people in the Greater Horn of Africa on the brink of starvation, has changed the life. “It hasn’t rained for two years. To find out what it means in a community, to see how people are hurting and what help they need, I really got to see how the climate crisis is affecting so many lives and destroying so many livelihoods, and that they are mainly women and children. who suffer the most. »

It was the first time that Nakate had experienced such extreme climatic suffering firsthand. At a hospital treating severely malnourished children, she met an emaciated little boy who died the next day. According to the World Health Organization, around 7 million children under the age of five suffer from acute malnutrition in the region, which is experiencing the worst hunger crisis in more than 70 years. “I’ve always said that climate change is more than statistics, it’s more than weather, but in Turkana I really understood those words.”

Vanessa Nakate (left) talks to Christine Lokotor and her 11-month-old daughter, Apua Akadoli, at Kobuin Health Center in Turkana, Kenya.
Vanessa Nakate (left) talks to Christine Lokotor and her 11-month-old daughter, Apua Akadoli, at Kobuin Health Center in Turkana, Kenya. Photography: UNICEF

Of course, most people will never witness such a catastrophe, which is why it is crucial that the voices and experiences of those most affected are amplified on the international stage – through the media and at conferences. decision-making events like the UN climate talks.

Last year in Glasgow during Cop26, very few African activists were able to attend due to problems with accreditation, funding and Covid vaccinations, which at the time were only available for less than 5% people across the continent. Loss and damage commitments for developing countries most affected by global warming have once again been suspended at the request of rich, polluting countries.

Cop27 will take place in November this year in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, which will be Nakate’s third climate conference, but access for most activists is proving just as difficult this year. “A lot of people call him an African cop but he won’t be an African cop if the communities, the activists aren’t there.”

Countries across Africa – and the wider South – will seek billions of dollars in climate finance for adaptation and the green energy transition, as well as separate funds for loss and damage and reparations.

During the recent trip to Kenya, Nakate met a young man who asked him why countries in the global north contribute the most emissions, but places like Turkana suffer the most. “He thought they must have done something wrong…it was really hard to explain to him why those most affected are the least responsible, and that’s one of the horrific realities of the climate crisis.

“There are people looking for answers to a question that must be answered with much-needed reparations and accountability from the global north.”

The 54 African countries combined represent 15% of the world’s population but contribute less than 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 23% for China, 19% for the United States and 13% for the ‘European Union.

Nakate, a born-again Christian, said, “Having dominion over the Earth is a matter of responsibility and service to the planet and its people, for God is not a God of waste and exploitation.

NOTAkate was drawn to climate activism in 2018 after learning about erratic rainfall and extreme heat affecting Ugandan farmers and food production, including her family members. Agriculture is the backbone of the country’s economy, accounting for a quarter of its GDP. About 70% of the population lives from agriculture and livestock.

Inspired by Thunberg’s school strikes in Sweden, Nakate launched her own climate movement and protested for several months in 2019 outside the gates of parliament against the government’s inaction on the climate crisis. She went on to found Youth for Future Africa and the Africa-based Rise Up movement, and is now one of the most celebrated young activists in the world.

Vanessa Nakate at Lake Victoria on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda in 2021.
Vanessa Nakate at Lake Victoria on the outskirts of Kampala, Uganda in 2021. Photograph: Hajarah Nalwadda/AP

But her celebrity makes certain organizations and journalists consider her as the go-to African voice, which she finds problematic.

“Across the continent, many activists are doing incredible work, and there were many before us and the climate strikes of 2018. When the focus is on one person, it erases other experiences and stories. The solution is not to put faces to the climate movement, it has millions of people doing amazing work and organizing in their communities.

In Nairobi, Nakate recently met young people making briquettes – a cheap alternative cooking fuel made from waste mined from rivers – for a green energy company called Motobrix, creating sustainable local jobs. “It’s people and stories like this that we really need to listen to,” she added.

Ensuring that activists and impact communities from across Africa can attend – and meaningfully participate – in Egypt is crucial to negotiations on loss and damage – and solutions. If these stories go unheard, the solutions being funded risk being unacceptable or even harmful to affected communities.

“NGOs and governments need to listen and engage with communities about what they want, what works for them, and not dump solutions on them… We need to have communities at the negotiating tables in Egypt. »

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