Who is Vanessa Nakate?
If you ask Wikipedia, it'll tell you she’s a Ugandan climate justice activist. Which is true.
If you ask one of Global Citizen’s Digital Campaigns Managers, Jordan Devon, he’ll tell you Nakate is “the Beyoncé of climate action.” Which is also true, at least, according to Jordan.
If you ask “the internet”, it’ll tell you she’s a climate activist, the founder of the Rise Up Movement, the leader of Uganda's first Fridays for Future climate strikes, a Unicef Goodwill Ambassador, and more recently, Gates Foundation Global Goalkeeper Award Winner for 2022. She is all of these things.
If you ask Vanessa Nakate herself however, she’d very likely use the time to tell you about all the other hardworking and determined activists from the Global South that you should know about. It’s an answer that’s not just gracious, it’s important.
The voices of the Global South have long been put at the back of the line, especially when it comes to conversations about the climate crisis and its impacts. Nakate’s international-reaching microphone is not hers alone, it’s one she shares with as many Global South activists and citizens as she can.
“When someone says, ‘you are the representative of the African continent’ I’m like, ‘No. I am from Uganda, and the climate movement is more than one face,’” she told us. “I find that it erases what everyone else is doing, and yet every activist has a story, and every story has a solution to give, and every solution has a life to change.”
Hearing this answer reminded us that Vanessa Nakate is truly African, because nothing defines the continent more than the importance of community and supporting others.
Trying to define Nakate by the titles that she holds, doesn’t really explain who she is as an individual. So we thought we’d try something different; we thought we'd look at who Vanessa Nakate is not.
She Is Not the Face of Climate Activism
In fact, nobody is, and that’s a good thing.
Nakate alone will not bring the climate crisis to an end, because the impacts of climate change look different for every person. While the 25-year-old is a recognisable face whose work is an essential contribution to the fight against the crisis; Nakate stresses that there are so many in the Global South whose voices and experiences need to be propelled to the global stage.
“I think the media has a huge responsibility to cover the climate crisis, but a much bigger responsibility to highlight what is happening in the communities that are on the front lines of the climate crisis, especially the communities in the Global South,” she told us.
Tokenism gets in the way of this, as media outlets and organisations will rely on the voice of that one person from the Global South who is already on the international stage; repeatedly using this person’s experience and knowledge to define what the whole of the Global South looks like to the rest of the world.
“Many times they don’t want to interview any other person, or they don’t want any other person to speak at their conference, they want you specifically,” Nakate explained to us. “They say that they are being inclusive about having voices from Africa at climate conferences, but some of the organisations mean that; ‘yes we are inclusive, but only towards you or someone who is in the same calibre as you.'”
“This dismisses the work that every other activist is doing,” she said.
Ending the climate crisis will take collaboration and unique solutions for each unique situation. There is no “one activist fits all” when it comes to the climate crisis, and this is something that Nakate stresses.
“The climate movement is more than one face or two faces or three faces; it has to be looked at as a global movement. That’s how we’ll have climate justice, ensuring that we’ll have every story and every experience,” she said.
“Experiences that I may see in Uganda will be different from what an activist in Kenya is experiencing, or someone from South Africa, or someone from Pakistan,” she added.
Some of the activists she gives a shout out to include Uganda’s Isaac Ssentumbwe, Aida Nakku, Davis Reuben Sekamwa, and Evelyn Acham. She also gives props to Nigeria’s Adenike Oladosu, and Kenya’s Elizabeth Wathuti, and highlights that there are so many more.
She Is Not All Activism All the Time
There’s a social inclination to define who people are by what they do professionally, and that can be both high-pressure and reductionist. Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist, yes. She is also a 25-year-old intelligent young woman who listens to music (Hillsong is currently a favourite on her playlist), and who counts matooke as one of her favourite foods. She even said she’d make it for us one day — psst… if you’re reading this Vanessa, let us know when to drop by!
Nakate is also a woman who knows the value of self care, and believes that is one of the keys to fighting the dreaded climate change monster.
“With activism of course, comes a lot of work. A lot of organising, a lot of mobilising, and a lot of speaking about what is happening,” she said. “It’s true that many times young people may not be able to live through their childhood or live through their youth because they are constantly organising and mobilising. They are having to experience all these frustrations, it can be very disturbing for so many people, and that’s why the issue of self care is very important.”
“My advice would be that, even as we do activism, we prioritise ourselves, we prioritise our lives, we prioritise our mental health, because the very planet that we are fighting for will need us to exist as well,” she said.
“We can only better take care of the planet when we are also doing well," she continued. "As we advocate and fight for climate justice, it’s really important that young people really prioritise their mental health and their own self care, to find out, what is self care to them?”
She Is Not a Fan of Looking at the Climate Crisis as Just a Numbers Game
Speaking to us, Nakate highlighted that climate change is a human issue, and while the numbers are important to understanding this issue, their overuse can take away from the human impact of it. She gave the example of a visit she made to Turkana, in Kenya, with Unicef, where she connected with a community that has been deeply affected by one of Africa’s most severe droughts.
“I got to meet different mothers, I got to meet different children; and children that are suffering from malnutrition, I also got to meet some of the children who are suffering from severe acute malnutrition,” she said. “It’s very sad to say that one of the children that I met that day didn’t manage to live through the following day. He passed on that evening.”
“That should have been a preventable death, that should have been a preventable crisis,” she added.
“I think the fears I have are around what the climate crisis is actually doing to communities, individual families beyond the statistics of saying the drought in the horn of Africa is affecting 20 million people,” she said.
“When you go there you get to really understand the struggles, the agonies, and the pain of people in these communities," she continued. "I think my fear is of people continuing to die because this is a real-time crisis. This is not something that we just talk about and it’s coming in the future, it’s something that is happening right now.”
She Is Not Interested in More Talk
“I remember at COP26 the conversation around loss and damage was really building up, and the demands have always been that we need a separate fund for loss and damage to support the communities that are already experiencing this,” she said.
“Of course, this was reduced to a conversation, to a dialogue," she continued. "We need to move beyond dialogues because with every dialogue there is a child dying, with every dialogue there is a family migrating looking for sources of water and looking for food, for every dialogue people continue to suffer.”
She added: “What will be a win [for climate change loss and damage] is to have a separate fund put in place that is the loss and damage facility, put it in place for the countries and communities that are experiencing loss and damage, and also have real money put in because this is what is needed to address what is happening.”
So, Who Is Vanessa Nakate?
Amid all the things Vanessa Nakate is not, what she most definitely is, is a reminder of the way things should be. She reminds us that combating the climate crisis is not a fight for an individual, but for the collective. She reminds us that, while changing the world, it’s essential to take the time to take care of yourself. She reminds us that when we are fighting to protect the planet, we are also fighting to protect ourselves.
This interview was made possible thanks to the Gates Foundation Goalkeepers 2022. Read more about Vanessa Nakate and other activists being honoured as 2022 GoalKeepers here.
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