Young African Activists

We must celebrate our young African climate leaders

In 2020, 23-year old Ugandan climate activist, Vanessa Nakate joined 20 other young activists at the World Economic Forum in Davos to protest against the continued subsidisation of fossil fuel companies by banks and governments. After the conference, she was cropped out of a photo published by Associated Press in which she posed with four other activists, including Greta Thunberg. Vanessa was the only African in the photo. She later tweeted, “You didn’t just erase a photo. You erased a continent”.  It was the perfect symbol of how Africans are silenced in the climate conversation and African activists are sidelined. 

“We are on the front line [of the crisis]”, she said, “but we are not on the front page.”

As Youth Month drew to a close in June, I reflected on the significant role that young people have played in the fight for climate justice. While the youth have always taken part in advocating for change in various forms, the scale at which they have taken up the climate mantle is unprecedented. I think it is worth taking a moment to appreciate the powerful force that the youth have become in the fight for climate justice and the remarkable progress that they have made. 

But more specifically, I want to celebrate some of the courageous young African climate leaders who so rarely get the recognition they deserve. And I want to highlight just how crucial their voices are in the climate conversation.

First-hand Experience

What is often unique about climate activists in the Global South is that they have experienced the effects of climate change and global warming more intimately than those in the North. Take 21-year old Ayakha Melithafa for example. She was born and bred in Eersterivier, South Africa, and was brought up by her mother who was (and still is) a subsistence farmer. But when drought hit the Western Cape in 2017, the crops, the livestock, her family and her community suffered. Ayakha began to look into the possible causes of the drought and what she learnt shocked her. This started her on her activist journey. 

Ugandan climate and environmental rights activist, Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, experienced something similar. Hilda, along with her 10 younger siblings, grew up in southern Uganda, relying on their family’s farm for survival. Their crops, such as bananas, corn, and cassava, sustained them. But over the years, extreme weather events became ever more frequent and their crops started to fail. When Hilda was 10, her family was no longer able to pay her school tuition, and had to sell off much of their farmland and livestock. Like Ayakha, it was watching her family suffer that set her on the path to environmental activism. 

The Global South Bears the Brunt

Like Hilda and Ayakha, those living in the Global South will continue to be the main recipients of this kind of havoc that climate change is wreaking, despite the fact that they are far from being the main perpetrators of the crisis. Africa is home to 15% of the world’s population but is responsible for only 2-3% of the world’s carbon emissions. In Vanessa Nakate’s words, “Those with the fewest resources and who’ve contributed the least to the crisis are contending with the gravest consequences.” They are more vulnerable to climate-related disasters due to a deadly combination of geographical, infrastructural, and socio-economic factors. Geographically, many countries in the Global South are more vulnerable because they are in regions or on coastlines more prone to environmental disasters like storms, hurricanes, droughts, and desertification. As the sea level rises and the intensity of such environmental disasters worsens, they will only become more vulnerable. Often these countries rely on climate-sensitive industries like fisheries, forestry, and agriculture so environmental changes that impact these industries directly affect their livelihoods and create serious food-insecurity, as was the case with Hilda and her family.  Much of the Global South is made-up out of developing countries that have limited resources and infrastructure which hinders their capacity for adaptation, mitigation, and preparation. For many citizens of these developing countries, climate-related catastrophes are not just scary hypotheticals that they see on the news, they are lived realities. 

This is exactly why it is vital that the voices of activists from these countries are heard in the halls of power, and it is largely young people who are forcing their way into these halls. In 2019, when she was 22 years old, Hilda spoke in front of hundreds of international delegates at the United Nations Climate Change Conference and told them plainly: “I come here to represent millions of African young people who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis,” she said. “As I speak to you right now, extreme weather events are killing people in my country.” She went on, “I do not understand why the most affected people are often underrepresented”.  Ayakha said something very similar in an interview with the Daily Maverick: “I’m sure a lot of the people in the world don’t know how much the Global South is actually doing to mitigate and adapt to climate change. They think we are inactive because our stories aren’t being covered, and our voices aren’t being heard in these negotiation rooms. 

It is not only at big international conferences that Ayakha and Hilda have made their mark, however. Both of them are committed to climate justice in their home countries. At the moment, Ayakha is working with the Western Cape Education Council to create a climate awareness programme for the school curriculum to better educate students on climate change. She is also a part of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Presidential Climate Commission. In 2019, Hilda helped found Fridays for Future Uganda, a group that organises climate strikes and that is part of a global network. She also focuses on helping Ugandan citizens to understand the implications of climate change and local environmental issues. One of her biggest projects has been to protect Lake Victoria by teaching locals that dumping trash into the water leads to clogged and polluted waterways which affect the fish upon which many local fishers depend. 

Repaying the Carbon Debt

Because affluent Western countries are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis while the Global South suffers the consequences far more acutely, there is growing pressure on the West to financially support the Global South’s green transition. Decarbonising an economy can be costly and the West should help with these costs as a form of reparations and compensation. While the West has made many promises and pledges to provide financial aid to the developing world for their transition, they have largely failed to follow through. But we can’t afford to wait around forever.

Young African activists have been vocal about the West’s failure to pay their debt. Ahead of her trip to COP26 in Glasgow, Ayakha said, 

“I think it’s important for South Africans like me and others to be present at COP26 because if we don’t make them uncomfortable and if we don’t ask these difficult questions about finance and investing in the Global South, then who will?”.

She is right; it is often the young who are most willing to speak truth to power freely and honestly, without mincing their words. This is why it is so vital that we have young people representing Africa on the global stage. Hilda ended her speech at the UN Climate Conference with a powerful message to her Western audience: “Your beds might be comfortable now but not for long. You will soon feel the same heat we feel every day. But I also promise you: You can rest assured that youth from the other side of the world are fighting for a safe future for you and for us all and are not about to give up”. I don’t know about you, but this gives me goosebumps. 

An African Voice

After she was cropped out of that infamous photo in Davos, Vanessa Nakate realised the true significance of her role in the climate movement. She needed to bring an African voice to the climate conversation. Africa, she said, is “a continent that has been ignored, silenced, and exploited for too long”. Since then, Vanessa has achieved a remarkable amount. She has spoken at numerous conferences, given numerous interviews (one of which was with Angelina Jolie for Time magazine), and received countless awards and recognition, such as being named one of BBC’s 100 Women in 2020. She founded the Green Schools Project which helps Ugandan schools to transition to renewable energy. In 2022, Vanessa published her book, “A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis”. She has made sure that African climate activists would get that spot on the front page.   

As the climate crisis worsens, it is essential that we uplift those activists who are representing the people who are feeling the consequences most acutely. And we must ensure that youth are given a platform to express their views. The worst is yet to come and it is the youth who will have to contend with it. In Hilda’s words: 

“We are a generation of scared people, but very ambitious ones. United, persistent, and very good at action”.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Josie is a writer and researcher who wants to do her bit to make the world a little greener. She holds an MA in Philosophy from Stellenbosch University and is currently working on her doctoral proposal.

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