It was on a cold January day in Switzerland last year when Vanessa Nakate found her true voice.
Ms. Nakate had just attended a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos with Greta Thunberg and three other young environmental activists. She’d spoken about the damaging effects of climate change on her homeland of Uganda and across Africa. As she scrolled through her phone a few hours later, she came across a news story about the press conference, and her heart sank.
An Associated Press photograph accompanying the article showed Ms. Thunberg and three of the other activists, all white Europeans. Ms. Nakate had been in the shot as well – part of her coat was barely visible in the photograph – but she’d been cropped out of the frame.
“It was like the hardest thing because everyone’s message was being talked about and my message was left out,” she said in a tearful video posted later that day on Twitter. “Does that mean I have no value as an activist or the people from Africa don’t have any value at all?”
The news agency later apologized and released the full photograph, but the episode sparked a worldwide outcry and it transformed Ms. Nakate into a climate-crusading superstar who now rivals Ms. Thunberg for global attention.
Since the Davos debacle, Ms. Nakate, 24, has been invited to speak at conferences around the world and she’s launched the Rise Up Movement to encourage climate activism in Africa. She’s also been interviewed by actress Angelina Jolie, made the cover of Time magazine, and written a bestselling book appropriately titled, A Bigger Picture: My Fight To Bring A New African Voice To The Climate Crisis.
“Being cropped out of the photo changed the course of my activism and my life,” she wrote in the opening chapter. “It reframed my thoughts about race, gender, equality and climate justice.”
On Thursday, Ms. Nakate shared the stage at the COP26 climate summit with Antonio Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. With a steady voice and a slight accent, she delivered a passionate plea that drew sustained applause.
“We see business leaders and investors flying into COP on private jets. We see them making fancy speeches. We hear about new pledges and promises,” she told the delegates. “I have come here to tell you that we don’t believe you.”
And in a direct pitch to business leaders she added: “Show us your faithfulness, show us your trustworthiness, show us your honesty. I am here to say, prove us wrong.”
Ms. Nakate has been a forceful voice throughout the summit both inside the conference centre and on the streets of Glasgow. While Ms. Thunberg was given no role at COP26, Ms. Nakate has participated in two panel discussions including one with actor Idris Elba. She’s also been at the forefront of a pair of massive protest marches through the city’s streets and she’s headlined two rallies.
It’s a far cry from her youth in Kampala where Ms. Nakate was a shy, bookish child who went on to earn a business degree at Makerere University. As a college student she’d been interested in environmental issues and worried about the prolonged droughts and searing heat waves that had hit much of the continent. But she never dreamed of taking a public stand on the issue.
That changed in 2018 when she saw news reports about Ms. Thunberg’s climate strike in front of the Swedish parliament. In her book, Ms. Nakate said she was impressed by the Swede’s commitment and she decided to hold a similar strike in downtown Kampala – a nerve-racking experience in a society that has strict norms about what women should and shouldn’t do. She uploaded some pictures of her sit-in on Twitter, which Ms. Thunberg quickly retweeted. The photos went viral and Ms. Nakate soon found herself part of Ms. Thunberg’s growing movement called Fridays for Future.
She remains one of the few young climate activists from Africa and has a passion that world leaders find hard to ignore. Despite her prominence, the same problem she encountered in Davos surfaced again in Glasgow.
When Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon met Ms. Thunberg and Ms. Nakate at the start of the summit, some news photographs of the meeting cut out Ms. Nakate and only showed Ms. Sturgeon and Ms. Thunberg. That drew a sharp rebuke from Ms. Thunberg who tweeted, “Media needs to stop erasing the voices of activists.”
Once again, more apologies and clarifications ensued.
For teenagers such as Anna Brown, Ms. Nakate is an inspiration. “Vanessa is an amazing person,” said Ms. Brown, 19, who belongs to Fridays for Future in Glasgow. “Everyone who hears her speak can really feel what she’s saying. And I think a lot of the time she’s very much a wake-up call for people.”
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