Vanessa Nakate often repeats, there can be no real climate justice without gender equality, the cry of the earth and the cry of women are one. In the poorest Countries of the Global South, they account for two thirds of the agricultural labor force; in Africa, this share is close to 80 per cent. They are, therefore, the first to suffer the consequences. Including the most unexpected ones. Vanessa Nakate is sure of this and, now, recent research on the global impact of the Ukrainian crisis confirms it: there is a close link between reduced food supply, soaring prices and an increase in early marriages. “Certainly the parents, like the daughters, do not want this to happen,” she assures, “but when, because of the climate, harvests are devastated and the cost of food goes up, the dowry received by the groom’s family is one of the few alternatives to survive”.
Women as a hub and a solution for climate change.
“Imagine that a football coach has to face a decisive match, I don’t know, say the World Cup final. Would he take to the field with half a team? Certainly not. Then how can we meet the crucial challenge against global warming with only half of humanity? The way women see things, their strength, their imagination are crucial to win. Otherwise we will all be defeated”.
Vanessa Nakate, now 25, is the founder of the Rise Up climate movement that aims to raise awareness of the voices of African activists and the Vash Green Schools Project.
She recalls that Friday in January 2019 when she stood in the middle of a street in Kampala with a sign in her hand. Beside her were her four younger brothers, cousins and close friends. These were the only people who, in the previous weeks, had not laughed at her idea of bringing a climate strike to Uganda following Greta Thumberg’s example. Fellow students in the Faculty of Economics majoring in Environmental Management had considered it “nonsense”. The neighbors a “waste of time”. Nevertheless, Vanessa had taken no notice and had moved on. In her eyes was the image of the capital’s suburbs turned into amphibious districts by the increasingly violent floods. She was studying to take her Business Administration degree in Marketing at Makerere University Business School. As a curious and lively student, she had rejected the fatalistic responses to her questions and decided to delve deeper. She had thus discovered the extent of climate change and its devastating effects on Africa, the continent that, with four per cent of global emissions, contributed the least to causing it. “It was immediately clear to me that this was the central issue of the present and the future”, she stresses. Awareness drove her to action.
For a moment, however, on that street in Kampala, the then 21-year-old girl felt her resolve waver. The sheet of paper in her hands weighed heavy like a boulder. Vanessa, however, had not relented, she had taken a breath, and with a thrust lifted it up, showing passers-by the inscription: “Green love, green peace”. Fridays for future had arrived in Uganda.
Almost four years later, Vanessa Nakate is the African face of the movement. She was one of the young climate activists chosen to speak at the cop 25 gathering in 2019 in Spain. Alongside Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, she had journeyed to international summits to call on the so-called ‘Great of the Earth’ to stop the race towards self-destruction. In 2020, the BBC included her on its list of the hundred most influential women on the planet while the United Nations named her a “Young Leader for the Sustainable Development Goals”. The following year, she ended up on the cover of Time magazine and in the Time100Next list.
Popularity almost seems to embarrass the shy, quiet and thoughtful Vanessa. Even when she uses strong words, she does so without anger. “Anger pollutes the message. No one lends an ear to invective. And it would be a shame to waste the opportunity, instead, to speak about what is happening and what we can do to turn things around”. With this conviction, Vanessa Nakate devotes long hours to studying. “I am a self-taught climate scientist. It is serious that almost nothing is taught about it in schools and universities”. Precisely in order to spread awareness, she has turned her experience into a book - Aprite gli occhi. La mia lotta per dare voce al cambiamento climatico [Open Your Eyes. My Fight to Give Climate Change a Voice] (Feltrinelli) - translated into the languages with the highest number of speakers and also published in Italy. “What I have always wanted is to make the Africa’s cry resound around the globe. And of its women”, she says, shaking out her very long ebony hair combed into thin braids. Yes, the women.
It is precisely from them, who are on the front lines of the effects of economic and social crises, and who suffer the dramas of war, drought, and water impoverishment personally, that the push for change can come. “It is women’s hands that provide food and water for the family. Women, therefore, are the first to realise their diminishment due to climate change. It is not a theoretical issue, it is a daily drama. The future of their children is at stake. Of our children, of all of us. That’s why women, together with young people, are the engine of the movement to take care of the planet”, says the young woman, now involved in the Green schools project, a programme that aims to install solar panels in 24,000 Ugandan schools.
It means that there will be lighting, which was previously insufficient, and it will be ecologically sustainable. Institutions will be able to free themselves from paraffin lamps and dependence on fossil fuels, coal and wood, and the carbon dioxide emitted by stoves. Experts say this kind of action is crucial across the African continent, where demand for electricity is set to double by 2030.