Being cropped out of a photo featuring Greta Thunberg and three other white climate activists was heartbreaking for Vanessa Nakate, but it has now become a huge source of motivation.
The 23-year-old activist from Kampala, Uganda, was cut out of a picture taken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, by the Associated Press, which has since apologized for the “terrible mistake.”
In the days since, Nakate has gained over 100,000 followers across her (now-verified) Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts. Someone even set up a Wikipedia page for her.
People shared her outrage over what the AP did, Nakate told BuzzFeed News via Skype from her home in Kampala.
“After the picture and everything that happened, I received quite a number of messages and support from different parts of the world,” she said.
She added, “It’s been my encouragement, motivation, and source of energy to move on — to keep demanding for climate action, and keep doing the climate strikes and everything that we've been doing for climate activism.”
“I believe that after this incident and all that's happened, there's going to be a change in how the media reports the issues of climate change," Nakate said. "I believe that the media will start to cover stories from different parts of the world — because I believe that each country has an activist, and every activist has a story to tell, a solution to give.”
Thunberg, 17, was among those who publicly supported Nakate in the aftermath of the photo-cropping incident.
Thunberg, Nakate, and other activists appeared via video call for a press conference Friday to provide a platform for climate activists from Africa, such as Makenna Muigai, Ayakha Melithafa, and Ndoni Mcunu.
Thunberg said that whenever she attended events such as Davos or international climate conferences, “There’s a huge media interest.”
“So, therefore, we must use that opportunity since we have a platform,” she said. “We must make sure that the voices of the people who should be heard are heard as well."
She added, “That's why we are doing this press conference today — so that people who need to be heard can share their stories to the media. And today we will be focusing on African activists and scientists from Africa, as the African perspective is always so underreported.
"That's why I encourage everyone who is participating to not ask the questions to us but to the other participants,” she said. (A follow-up email to journalists after the press conference said that Thunberg would not be doing any interviews.)
Nakate said during the press conference, “This is the time for the world to listen to the activists from Africa, to pay attention to their stories and take action where it is needed. I believe this is the opportunity for the media to do some justice to the climate issues in Africa.”
Thunberg’s solitary strike outside the Swedish Parliament in 2018 was what inspired Nakate to become an activist. While Nakate tends to work with her dad in his shop most days, she takes Fridays off in order to strike — something she has been doing since January last year.
“When I joined climate activism at that point, I was not sure about the kind of activism I wanted to do. But I wanted to do something that would cause change to the lives of people in my community,” Nakate told BuzzFeed News.
She said people in Uganda were feeling the impact of climate change firsthand, and that convinced her to do something about it.
"Uganda as a country mainly depends on agriculture not just for the people, but the economy at large,” she said. “It’s not just a risk; it’s a danger for different people who heavily depend on their farms and their crops — because once these disasters happen, they destroy their hopes and dreams and what they have and what they’ve been planning for their future."
In September last year, months before the AP cropped her out of the photo, Nakate was invited to the UN Climate Action Summit and Youth Climate Summit in New York. She is also the founder of her own climate group, the Rise Up Movement, which has representatives in 10 countries in Africa.
Nakate said she started the Rise Up Movement to help “amplify” the voices of activists from Africa, and that, inadvertently, the incident with the AP photo could help climate activists in Africa have a larger platform. “In the beginning I didn’t know how I was going to do this,” she said. “But I just believed that it could happen in one way or another. And after all this, this incident that has happened, I can say that there’s an opportunity for me because of the audience I have right now to help tell the stories of different activists from Africa.”
Nakate has ambitious plans for the year ahead. She hopes to soon launch a tree-planting campaign in Uganda and wants to continue her project of installing institutional stoves — large ovens that reduce the amount of firewood used — and solar fields in schools to reduce carbon emissions.
“I also hope to open up chapters of the Rise Up Movement in different schools, because I believe that if we educate the young people, then we will be able to fight for our futures," she said. “Many are being motivated by the issues and our goals, and by the fact that we keep doing this, we never give up.”