African climate activists fighting to be heard . . . and seen

Kampala Letter: Davos photo featuring Greta Thunberg had Ugandan activist cropped out

In northern Uganda, at a music festival last year, a witchdoctor held up a smoking pipe to the grey, stormy sky. He was being paid roughly $50 for the weekend by the desperate organisers, who asked him to try to clear rain using traditional means. Incessant downpours had turned the festival grounds chokingly muddy and caused the roads leading there to become almost impassable.

This wasn’t the only case of unexpected weather. It’s now meant to be the hot season in Uganda – when dust billows up from the dry roads and people stay out of the sun as much as possible. Unexpectedly, over the past month there has also been heavy rain across the country.

Increased concern about the weather comes as Ugandan climate change activist Vanessa Nakate has been making global headlines. The soft-spoken 23-year-old was cropped out of an Associated Press photo taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she was calling for politicians to act against climate change. Each of the other four activists left in the photo – Greta Thunberg, Loukina Tille, Luisa Neubauer and Isabelle Axelsson – were white. Their image – minus Nakate – was distributed on news wires globally.

"You didn't just erase a photo. You erased a continent," Nakate argued online afterwards. She says this is only one example of African climate activists being kept out of a global debate on the world's future.


“Africa at large is being affected by the negative impacts of climate change,” said Kenyan activist Makenna Muigai, supporting her. “A great example is the locust infestation in east Africa, which will soon lead to food insecurity. The sad thing is, lots of people from western countries are unaware as to why this is happening.”


Following outcry online, AP executive editor Sally Buzbee apologised. "As a news organisation, we care deeply about accurately representing the world that we cover. We train our journalists to be sensitive to issues of inclusion and omission," she said, later adding: "It was a mistake that we realise silenced your voice, and we apologise."

Back in her home city of Kampala, Nakate told The Irish Times how upset she was about the incident.

“When I saw that photo I kept asking myself why it happened, why they would do something like that. It was very frustrating and hurtful for me to see that photo because a million questions came into my head . . . was I not fit to be in that photo? It was really hard for me,” she said.

All Ugandans are affected by climate change, both directly and indirectly

The Fridays for Future protests may have been started by Thunberg in Sweden, but Nakate – and fellow Ugandans – have been holding their own version in Kampala for more than a year.

She says they will suffer more than most as the climate becomes increasingly unstable. “It’s like being in a house that’s on fire but you don’t even know it’s on fire,” she said.

"All Ugandans are affected by climate change, both directly and indirectly," said Emmanuel Zziwa, Uganda's national consultant for climate change at the UN Food and Agriculture organisation. "The most urgent need is action to mitigate and adapt. Hours of discussion in national and international forums without clear plans of action is of no benefit to African countries."

He said activists are doing a good job in holding authorities responsible. “I commend Vanessa and others, their voices and actions reach out to millions of people,” said Zziwa.

Carbon emissions

In January, Oxfam released a study showing that, on average, someone in the UK emits the same amount of carbon emissions in less than two weeks as citizens of Uganda, Madagascar, Malawi, Ethiopia, Guinea, Rwanda and Burkina Faso do in a whole year. Yet African countries are particularly susceptible to climate change, with subsistence farmers some of the most vulnerable. More than 80 per cent of Ugandans work in agriculture.

In some ways, the AP drama helped African activists. Nakate has gained more than 120,000 Twitter followers since January. The business administration graduate has set up an organisation called the Rise Up Movement, aimed at amplifying African perspectives on climate change.

She said she hopes it will cause both the international community and her own government to pay more attention, and hopes for reform, including stricter rules for foreign investors.

“Most fossil fuel companies are funded by the West,” she said.

Nakate is now dispensing advice to other African activists. “I can tell them not to give up, to keep fighting, to keep demanding action.”