At the ongoing 26th Conference of Parties of the United Nations Climate Change Conference (UNFCCC – COP26), taking place in Glasgow Scotland, there is one unmissable voice for the prying eyes of the global media – and that’s is none other than Vannesa Nakate, so it seems.
Nakate has been sought after by the BBC, the Financial Times, The New York Times arguably the biggest and most influential media outlets, hence catapulting the shy 24-year Ugandan activist into a global celebrity.
When former US President Barack Obama delivered his powerful speech at the talks on November 7 during which he rallied young people to not relent in applying pressure against politicians to walk their talk on climate change, it was Nakate’s apt reaction to the globally popular former President that the BBC chose to highlight.
The BBC quoted the Ugandan activist reminding the former President that as he criticised fellow leaders in China and Russia as well as Conservatives back home for not doing enough, his own administration reneged on a key promise made by his administration back in 2009 at COP15 in Denmark.
Nakate owes her rising fame primarily to her activism and eagerness to speak up about the effects of climate change and the loss and damage it has wrought on the weakest and poor people in Uganda and other African countries.
She has organised protests in Kampala and joined others elsewhere. She has written opinions in leading media outlets such as the Guardian, published a book and appeared at numerous high-profile climate change related events to reflect the views of the poor and the youth.
Thanks to her fighting spirit, Nakate turned a misfortune into an opportunity when the American Newswire organization – the Associated Press, cropped her out of a photo in which she had appeared alongside Gretta Thunberg at the World Economic forum in Davis Switzerland in January 2020.
Nakate had held a joint press conference along with four white young activists including Greta Thunberg. Instead a picture that was released the news organization had cropped Nakate out of the picture. A protest by both Thunberg and Nakate not only forced the powerful news agency to apologize but also helped to draw the world’s attention to the hitherto little known Ugandan girl.
For Nakate and perhaps for other observers, her removal from the picture symbolized something greater than a mere edited picture.
As she has told both the New York Times and the FT, the removal represented silencing of voices of Africans by western media, and yet they are the most affected by climate change.
“When I went back home, some of my friends didn’t know how much that was a serious issue,” she tells me. “They said: ‘It’s just a photo.’ But I saw something bigger. It wasn’t just my removal from a picture. There was something deeper: how we who are on the frontlines of the climate crisis are not on the front pages.”
By challenging the media, a key player in the current global politic and key shapers of opinion, Nakate also tapped into the smoldering fire of anti-racism.
Although Nakate still exhibits strong passion for pushing developed countries to fulfil their promises towards aiding poor countries cope with Climate Change, she could benefit from a cautious approach in her activism and avoid being used by bigger civil society lobbyists that may be keen to exploit her symbolism of vulnerability for selfish ends.