Many have never even noticed her presence let alone her protest boards; never mind that she has been on the streets every Friday or Sunday for 21 weeks now.
But 22-year-old Vanessa Nakate told Frank Kisakye that she is determined to carry on her mostly lone silent protests, “until the leaders react and the president declares a climate emergency”.
The heavily-opinionated and social media freak Nakate says that despite protesting for nearly five months, few people have noticed, appreciated or even joined her in the protests, yet the effects of climate change are already there for all to see.
Over the weekend, Ugandans lost lives, poultry and homes to heavy rains that can be tagged to climate change. The country’s lush tropical forests are disappearing at an appalling rate and the result has been drought that has lasted an entire year in some regions.
Crop yields have dropped, water tables have dropped and media reports have shown even boreholes going dry in some places of a country once lauded for her beautiful climate. The message would only get across to the leadership if only everybody spoke the same voice, Nakate says.
During her protest on Jinja road near the traffic lights on week 20, the few that glanced were more in wonderment about what was wrong with her than the message she was carrying. Only once, according to Nakate, has somebody taken keen interest in her now 21 protests.
Even then, the elderly man that approached her outside the Parliament gates thought she had an organisation that supplied tree seedlings. Then the parliamentary security shortly after swung into action, thinking she was one of those Bobi Wine’s ‘People Power’ movement youths.
“I thought I was going to be arrested. I was so scared. But when they checked and found that I only had climate change placards, they left me alone but kept a keen eye throughout,” she says.
Nakate says her mother and father know she is into “climate change things”, but have no idea what exactly it is that she does. They have not witnessed her picketing for her cause.
The business administration in marketing graduate from Makerere University Business School (MUBS) usually stages her protests on Friday or Sundays for 30 to 60 minutes, during the rush hour of 7am to 8am. Nakate graduated from MUBS in January.
WHEN IT ALL BEGAN
Interestingly, she has more encouragement to carry on from the Swedes, Danes, Americans, and French than from Ugandans themselves, thanks to the cultural differences and how much value the different peoples attach to weather and climate.
In the West, protests usually cause leaders to react to a cause, but in Uganda, protests usually invite the leaders to arrest protesters. And if the protest is not political or does not directly address the person of the president, like Nakate’s, it is mostly ignored until the protester tires and goes home, or starts eating their food (in case of hunger strikes).
But that history will not deter Nakate. For a moment you would think Nakate has an organisation behind her protests, but she says the idea was only birthed as recently as last December during a casual conversation with one of her uncles, Charles Kamoga, about how hot Uganda had suddenly become.
Because of lack of resources, she even had to postpone the debut of her protests because she lacked the money to print the placards.
“Twenty years ago, it never used to be this hot. The weather was always cool and calm. Farmers used to love [organized seasons] because they would fill their gardens with water and refill the rivers and gullies, but not anymore,” Nakate remembers her uncle Kamoga saying. She had to do something, even if it meant stepping out as a lone ranger.
An undesirable heat wave hit Uganda last year between October and December. Even government has admitted that things are not going in the right direction. Uganda’s forest cover has been depleted to eight per cent from 24 per cent in the 1990s, according to Sam Mangusho Cheptoris, the minister for Water and Environment. The sudden heat waves and constant flooding are the fruits of human degradation of the environment.
Malls, apartments, sugarcane and palm plantations have replaced swamps, forests and wetlands; sand is being mined out of riverbeds and lakes at unprecedented rates as a boom in real estate development continues, destabilizing the water bodies’ ecology.
Charcoal is now preferred over standing trees; and when Kenya instituted strict laws on deforestation and charcoal-burning, the amiable Ugandans turned on their forests and now burn charcoal for two countries – ‘exporting’ to Kenya as well.
Nakate says if only she had the resources, her dream of starting a non-profit organisation to sensitise the youth about climate change would already have been realized. Although it is already bad and has reached extreme levels that need urgent attention, she says the situation can be reversed if everybody did what they ought to do.
“The organization’s main goal [would be] to teach students in primary schools and secondary schools about climate change - the causes, the impact. I believe that if you give knowledge to the younger generation, they will be able to fight for their future because that is where they are headed,” she says.
“Climate change is a worldwide crisis and though African countries contribute less to the causes of climate change, they will be the most affected, including Uganda. So, we have to take action as soon as possible. One of the reasons for that is that African leaders and most [senior] citizens do not take it seriously but out there the young generation are taking it seriously.”
She hopes that soon rather than later the Ugandan leadership and society will start taking the climate crisis seriously and coordinate efforts to mitigate the effects. She would also love to see more young people join her protests, but blames the police for creating an environment of fear for protests.
“My friends are always warning me that I will get arrested,” Nakate says. “If all the students would decide to [peacefully demonstrate] at least once in a week, it would get the attention of almost everyone, including our leaders. This is a global issue; you don’t have be an environmentalist to get involved.”