Review: A Bigger Picture by Vanessa Nakate

In her new book, Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate brings a youthful African voice to bear on the biggest issue of our time.


Image : Paul ELLIS /AFP

It is especially appropriate that a young African woman – the 25-year old Ugandan activist Vanessa Nakate, should be a leading voice of the continent as it faces the existential threat of climate change.

Appropriate because Africa’s demographic profile is so youthful: according to the African Union, of the continent’s total population, no less than 75% are under 35 years of age.

Her gender is also significant. In her new book, A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis, Nakate presents a convincing argument that climate change is disproportionately impacting the lot of rural women, a trend she first noticed in her own country. 

“Floods, heat-waves, and drought were destroying the crops on which the vast majority of Uganda’s people depend for their livelihoods, and food insecurity was a huge issue in Uganda.

“The resulting poverty, made worse by the climate emergency, meant that too many girls weren’t in school because their families couldn’t afford the fees. Others were being married very young so their parents could receive some food or money in exchange, which could be crucial to their survival, but disastrous for the girls themselves.”

These are probably not aspects of the impact of global warming that are immediately apparent to the non-African world, but Nakate, a graduate of Makerere University Business School who emerged to prominence with solitary protests outside the Ugandan parliament, is determined to speak not only to her fellow Africans but to the wider world, who she suspects seek to ignore Africa’s climate emergency.

Invitation to Davos

Nakate’s outspoken assertion that Africa is fully entitled to take part in the global debate concerning the disaster that is already unfolding is absolutely clear.

While she insists that she is just one of a team of African climate activists, she has carved out a reputation as one of the most charismatic and articulate in her appearances at global forums, from the UN Youth Summit to the Davos World Economic Forum. 

But as she recalls with refreshing candour, much of the closeted world of international forums was alien to her when she was first asked to attend Davos at the invitation of Arctic Basecamp, an organisation of scientists raising the alarm about the rapid warming of the Arctic.

“At that point, I’d never heard of Arctic Basecamp or Davos or, for that matter, the World Economic Forum,” she admits.

“When I told a friend who’s also now an activist that I’d accepted the invitation, she said she’d researched the event and that many rich people would be attending. That didn’t interest me as much as the prospect of seeing snow for the first time.

“I knew that Switzerland was a mountainous country, and since it was January in the northern hemisphere, I assumed it would be cold. Arctic Basecamp’s team told me they’d be supplying the winter gear I’d require, so I needn’t worry.”

Arriving by train in Davos, she only had her Ugandan clothes when Arctic Basecamp found her and put her in a hotel to thaw out for the night. Nakate subsequently spurned the luxuries of a warm hotel to spend her time in a tent undertaking a trademark bout of outside advocacy.

But as thrilling and varied as the initial experiences of global activism were –  especially the opportunity to speak Africa’s truth to rich and powerful business leaders, financiers, and politicians – her early experience of the ingrained prejudices of the international press was a wake-up call. 

Cropping out a continent

Nakate was invited to speak at a press conference by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future organisation, and subsequently photographed by the Associated Press alongside white European climate activists Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson, Loukina Tille and Luisa Neubauer.

That evening, checking the news feeds on social media, she was astonished to find that she had been cropped out of the photo.  

“My heart nearly stopped. It was clearly the picture I’d been in, since you could make out the edge of my coat on the far left of the frame. But I was nowhere to be seen. I’d been cropped out…

“[I was] frustrated, angry, and embarrassed. As I looked at the image, it became impossible to ignore that of the five women who’d posed for that photo, I was the only one who wasn’t from Europe and the only one who was Black.

“They hadn’t just cropped me out, I realised. They’d cropped out a whole continent.”

Impact of global warming on Africa

For Nakate, that harmful act was emblematic of the world’s marginalisation of Africa in the international climate debate. This was especially galling considering the devastating impact that global warming has had and is projected to have on Africa.

As Nakate writes: “People in Uganda, in Africa, and across what’s called the Global South are losing their homes, their harvests, their incomes, even their lives, and any hopes of a liveable future right now.

“This situation is not only terrible, it’s also unjust. Although the African continent has just 15% of the world’s population, it is responsible for only between 2% and 3% of global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions.

“The average African’s greenhouse gas emissions are a fraction of those of people living in the US, Europe, China, the United Arab Emirates, Australia, or many other countries.”

An Oxfam study concluded that a person in the UK will have emitted more CO2 in the first two weeks of 2020 than the citizens of seven African countries, including Uganda, will in the whole year, while the African Development Bank says seven of the 10 countries most susceptible to the harshest effects of the climate crisis are in Africa.

Never despair

But this gloomy prognosis does not mean that Nakate is despairing. “Even though the climate forecasts are terrifying, I still believe we can have hope. We have to. There isn’t any other option.”

Having made her mark through passionate speeches, her actions are now going beyond activism and climate strikes into the realm of practical solutions. She has embarked on a comprehensive programme, the Vash Green Schools Project, to install energy-efficient cooking stoves and solar panels in schools as well as ensuring climate issues are on school curriculums.

And she complements her inspiring life story with a chapter that sets out 10 ways that the reader can stand up “for what is right and just”.

As climate change worsens in the years to come, Africa is likely to need the bold voice of Nakate – and her entire generation – as they too demand the global change that is right and just.

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