Book Report XI: A Bigger Picture

Fifteen percent of humanity lives on the African continent. Together, they emit less than 1% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but the continent’s 1.3 billion people, particularly the women and girls among them, will be the first and hardest hit by the consequences of global heating. It is therefore essential that African people, and specifically African women and girls, are leaders in international climate justice movements who shape our decarbonization and mitigation policies.

Vanessa Nakate, a climate justice activist from Uganda, has earned the world’s attention with her local and international climate justice advocacy. Her book, “A Bigger Picture: my fight to bring a new African voice to the climate crisis”, is excellent; part-memoir and part-manifesto, she introduces herself, her contexts as a young black woman from Uganda working on the world stage, as well as her perspectives on activism as a career.

Her activism began with focused protesting in front of busy intersections in Kampala, her hometown, and the work of Greta Thunberg inspired Nakate to focus her attention on the Ugandan parliament. But Nakate’s position as a young black woman in Kampala is different in myriad ways; unlike in Stockholm, school is not free in Uganda. Families usually pay school fees, and truancy can mean expulsion. When your family’s welfare may depend on your post-school job prospects, skipping school can be akin to betrayal to your entire support system. Plus, many kids go to boarding schools - not many have access to the front of parliament buildings.

Nakate also has safety concerns to navigate; to avoid harassment, bullying, or violence she might receive as a single woman in public spaces, she often brings siblings to her protests. Greta Thunberg surely also receives her share of vitriol, political attacks, and perhaps also threats to her physical safety. But she’s also given the microphone, the front covers, and the book deals. She doesn’t get cropped from photos, or mistaken for other white activists.

At Davos 2020, Nakate was one of the few African climate justice activists invited to Davos. At the conference, she was mistaken for another Black activist, and then cropped out of a photo by the AP. The experience stung: it was erasure, not just of herself, but of the African communities she was there to represent. It pissed her off, but made her feel more bold. It showed her how important and urgent it is to spotlight African voices in climate justice movements, and remotivated her make sure that African people, especially African women, are key decision-makers in climate policy.

She has been largely self-taught regarding climate science and justice; she started on her journey as she was finishing university. Education’s role in Nakate’s own life informs her activism strategy. She’s made schools in Uganda her focus: teaching the “climate literacy” lessons she wished she’d had herself. In addition to curriculum development, she leads the Vash Green Schools Project, an organization with the mission to improve Ugandan schools by installing solar panels, clean cooking stoves, batteries, and efficient light bulbs.

There are many excellent books on climate justice - I also reviewed Thunberg’s book - but I particularly enjoyed one really unique aspect of Nakate’s book: her discussion of the human side of climate activism as a career. She’s honest with the emotions that come along: loneliness, depression, burnout. Her wisdom and learnings are important advice about the importance of self-care and community. Climate justice is the long-haul. We will probably be fighting for climate justice for the rest of our lives. To make that sustainable, we must also care for ourselves, and each other.

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