An Interview with Vanessa Nakate, Uganda’s first #FridaysForFuture Climate Striker

Vanessa on strike

Vanessa Nakate is an environmental activist in Nakawa, Uganda. She began researching climate change issues in school and realized she needed to take action in any way she could to bring attention to these issues, which led her to begin climate strikes inspired by the global #FridaysForFuture strikes. She is currently striking every week for climate issues and every day for the Congo Basin Rainforest.

Earth Hacks: Can introduce yourself and talk about what led you to start striking in Uganda?

Vanessa Nakate: My name is Vanessa Nakate, I’m a climate activist from Uganda. I started striking for climate in January 2019, so I’ve been doing this for 47 weeks now. Recently I started a strike mainly to save the Congo Rainforest, this strike represents all the rainforests in Africa because they’re not really paid the attention they deserve, so I’ve been doing the strike for 40 days now in a row, trying to create awareness about the destruction of the forests in Africa. So that’s all about me!

EH: Wow, so you’re doing 2 separate strikes at the same time, and continuing the Fridays 4 Future-inspired strikes even as you’re doing the Congo Rainforest Strikes?

VN: Yes I am.

EH: That’s really commendable but also arguably necessary looking at the scale of destruction we are facing and the seriousness of the situation we’re in. I think that urgency in taking climate action is certainly a common thread in our generation because we understand we need to be acting in any way you can, but what led you to striking in particular as a means of environmental action and what motivated you to actually start striking?

VN: For my school last year, we have a free period before graduation. So around that time I wanted to do something that would cause a change in the lives of the people in my community, therefore I started carrying out research to find out the biggest problems in africa and for the people in my country. I found a number of problems but I realized that climate change was not given the attention that it deserved, because personally I didn’t even know it was a challenge for us, I didn’t know much about climate change, as it is not fully taught in schools.

In school its all about “study, do your exams, and pass”. They teach us a little bit about climate change but we never really get to understand what climate change is. So I started to read more about it, and actually realized it was a challenge for the people in my country, and for myself, especially for the future days that are to come. I remember talking to my uncle about it and asking him what climate change really was, if there’s been any changes, and he told me there was a time around 20 years back, that during the month of January, it was the month that was really loved by farmers. As we know, Uganda’s mainstay is agriculture, so farmers really love January because of the rainfall and how it is good for the crops.

But it is quite the opposite now, because January is the hottest month in Uganda, every year there is this heat, but it is excess heat, it can even make you sick. He actually acknowledged that there had been a change and I started to look for ways of bringing it to the public and creating awareness, but I really didn’t know how to. In my country, they mainly just teach us to study what you want to become, but they never really go into details about life issues. So I tried to look for ways of creating awareness for it, and I tried to look for ways to create awareness for this challenge in our community.

So when i did that, that’s when I found out about Fridays 4 Future climate strikes, so I thought about joining the strikes. I actually had this thought from december 2018. But I’m kind of a very shy person, so it took me time to decide to do it. Because how I was raised, and in my school — in a single-sex school in my high school — there were always teachers discussing dignity for girls, “respect yourself, dont just put yourself out there”, so I had a lot to think about, and imagine what my friends would think of me, or my teachers, or my parents, so it took me a month to decide to join those strikes.

It was a hard decision! But when I decided to join in January, I just said “whatever comes, I’ll just keep doing these strikes, I don’t care what happens next, as long as I create the awareness for the people”. Because nobody had started the strikes yet in my country, so in January that is when I started the strikes. Just after the first day, everything became easier, at least for me, and I said “I guess that I have to keep doing this”.

EH: That’s incredible — so you are the first climate striker in the whole country of Uganda as far as you know?

VN: I think so!

EH: It’s interesting to hear that you had all these personal issues as well that you were thinking about and trying to overcome, because I think that’s something a lot of young climate activists face, especially for other young women in the climate movement. Is there anything you would say to them if there’s social pressure against them striking, if they face issues in putting themselves out there and drawing awareness to these issues?

VN: I would tell them that this issue that we’re facing right now, it’s a life issue. It doesn’t really matter the pressure you face from your family, your friends, or for your own conscience, your own personality. It’s a matter of fighting for our lives. Because in the end, if we do not demand for climate action, we are all going to suffer the wrath of the climate crisis in the future, and we are the younger generation so we are headed for the worst. So it’s better to fight for the future because if we don’t fight for the future, we won’t even be able to live with those pressures and personalities anymore. But when we fight for the future it will actually help us overcome — it’s a win win, you fight for your life and also fight to overcome those challenges, those personality challenges and social pressures.

EH: In the US, youth activists are really seen as one of the driving forces in this shift in attention towards the climate crisis, but in many schools across the country even here (quoting from article from Yale e360) “teachers are sometimes still fighting for the right to teach about climate change in the classroom”. You mentioned earlier that your teachers don’t really go into that in schools from your country. Can you talk a little more about that — do you think the education system in Uganda is integrating climate change into their curriculum fast enough and teaching their students enough about it?

VN: I would say that certain subjects like geography and social studies — primarily in social studies — we learn more about what happens in the surroundings of the environment. It’s more about teaching you the topics and definitions, but they don’t go into details to teach you that this is the reality that we are facing. In geography I remember they talked about climate change, but it was taught as a topic in the syllabus, it wasn’t taught in a way of letting us know that this is a reality. So by the time I left school, I didn’t even know that climate change was a reality, all I knew was that I studied about climate change, I wrote my exams, and I passed, so it was more about passing the exams than getting to know what the teachers taught and realizing that this is a reality. Personally I had to put in purely personal effort to actually understand what climate change is — I didn’t even know what causes it, I didn’t even know the science of climate change, yet it was a topic in school. They don’t really handle it in a better way to make us understand that it is a reality and I think that needs to change as soon as possible.

EH: Certainly. So right now, it’s the end of November 2019, and you started striking in January 2019. We’re almost in 2020 and you’re approaching the first year anniversary of starting to strike and really kicking off climate action where you are. How do you see the climate movement changing in your country and then changing globally in the year ahead for 2020?

VN: In my country, its really hard to have massive strikes because of brutality of the police, and how they handle people who try and express themselves. I think that relates to almost every African country, we don’t have as much freedom as the people in western countries. So I believe that new activists may be raised in my country, or in Africa but it will still not be the massive strikes we see in places like New York or Sweden. There will be strikers, but they will strike in different places. Like for example in Uganda, Uganda has a number of activists, but they never really strike together because of the fear of action from police. That’s what prevents most people from joining the climate strikes, they have a fear of the police and their use of tear gas and arrest, so they’d rather strike in their own suitable place alone and share photos later. But striking in a more unified form is very hard and that’s one of the biggest challenges that we are facing in the climate movement in Uganda. But when we talk about the climate movement worldwide, especially in western countries, I believe it’s going to grow more and more and put more pressure on governments to take climate action.

EH: What do you want students in the United States to know? How can US students help you, how can they support you, and what messages do you want to share so we can help you take action?

VN: I think that the students help us in striking in solidarity for some issues, for example striking for the Congo Rainforest, it would be good to have some of them. They don’t have to strike every day, they can choose maybe a few days to strike in solidarity with us. Because the Congo Rainforest is the second largest rainforest in the world, but the fact that it is in Africa, it does not get as much attention as it should. And personally, I believe that is a form of environmental racism. Why wouldn’t it get the same attention that the Amazon gets while it is also under destruction?

I remember reading an article that said basically “the Amazon was burning and the Congo Rainforest was burning but the fires are different.” I think they are trying to make us believe that we do not have to worry about the fires in the Congo Rainforest because they are different from the fires in the Amazon. It doesn’t really make sense to me, because I believe that fire is fire regardless of where it burns, and I don’t understand why we don’t have to worry about the fires in the Congo Rainforest, and yet the world worries about the fires in the Amazon. When the Amazon was burning, we stood up as African activists, we supported and we were striking in solidarity with the people of Brazil and everyone who really gets a lot from that forest. We stood in solidarity with them and made sure were striking and that spoke about the rainforest, but we are not getting that in return. So sometimes I feel that we in Africa are really left behind a bit, we are not really given as much attention, and yet Africa is already facing the impact of the climate crisis.

And if it continues like this, I just don’t know what the future holds, as it is quite hard to strike in Africa as a large group of people. And it’s sad that even with all the actions, all the interviews the leaders are still silent about it. But if we could get the world to help us, to support the African activists, and strike in solidarity with us, maybe it would attract the attention of our leaders to actually do something about the climate crisis. So basically we really need support and help with striking, especially for the Congo Rainforest.

I remember when I started striking for it, up until the 15th day or so there was really no recognition at all. On the 15th day it somehow got a lot of attention and everyone was talking about it, and some people said that they didn’t even know about the existence of the Congo Rainforest. It was quite troubling to find that out, because how can they try to save something that they don’t even know exists? So we just need the world to help us speak up. Because I think that most Africans need to be told about the climate crisis, because they cannot fight for what they do not know.

But in order to teach them, they will have to see that people in western countries are speaking up for Africa, they are helping Africa, because then this must be important. I think that Africans listen more to people from western countries than they do to people from their own countries, there is that mentality of white supremacy, and it’s quite disturbing, but we really need that support to help us speak about the issues in Africa. Maybe it will make the people in Africa realize that we are in a crisis because they’re not listening to us, their own people.

EH: To follow up on that, despite all of this, despite the urgency and the difficulty you faced in getting it off the ground, you’ve always maintained the same sense of urgency and dedication in your work. How do you not get frustrated and how do you not give up, and what would you tell people who want to support you so that they can also be resilient in their work?

V: It takes love and passion to actually do these things. If you have love for your life, you will definitely want to fight for it without ending. If you love the life of your parents, of your family, of your friends, if you love people you will want to keep fighting for them regardless of the negativity that you get. If you love animals, you will fight for them regardless of what happens. If you’re hurt by the pain of the victims from the climate crisis that we see here every day, this is motivation enough to keep fighting to stop the death of people because of the climate crisis. If you have love for plants, if you have love for trees, it’s all about love for humanity and every being that’s on earth. Because if you do love them, that means you will fight for them no matter what happens. It doesn’t matter the reaction that you get from people — because you get a lot of negative reactions from all kinds of trolls — but it is about the people, the plants, the trees that we are fighting for. It’s about the families we are fighting for, it’s about the animals that we are fighting for, it’s about the earth that we are fighting for. It is no longer just about us individually. It’s about creating a better future for the rest of the people.

EH: Is there other information you would like to share with us about the Congo Basin Rainforest, the effects of climate change in Uganda, or anything else you want to tell students in the United States?

V: All I can say is that though it does not appear in the news, every time it rains here in Uganda, people lose their homes, their farms — and as I mentioned, agriculture is the mainstay of the economy in Uganda, so if people lose farms that means hunger, starvation and death for some families. People lose loved ones each time it rains, because when you watch the news you see how the floods shift people’s houses. People in uganda, they’re not as rich, most of them, so their houses are not strong enough to withstand the floods. Each time it rains, houses are swept away and people lose their lives, especially children. When the floods hit, kids die because most of them, they are short and they can’t even stand up to be above the water — when the water rises, they are under it, and their parents really suffer to try and save them but sometimes it is impossible to do that. It is crazy seeing mothers cry all the time on the news, talking about the death of their children because of floods, the destruction of the farms, and asking the government for help because they don’t have access to food anymore. So all these things are happening in Uganda, they are happening in Africa, but we just don’t see them anywhere. They don’t make the news and I don’t understand why. But whatever climate catastrophe takes place in western countries, I see that everywhere on the news, everyone talks about it. But that is why some of your leaders listen more, they declare climate emergencies, they decide to take action, but it is not the same with us. Nobody talks about the disasters people go through so it leaves us hopeless and wondering what the future holds — it is quite scary.