A Bigger Picture – Vanessa Nakate

Vanessa Nakate on the cover of TIME magazine

Vanessa Nakate is a Ugandan climate activist, who started the first climate strikes in Uganda as part of the Fridays for the Future movement. She was invited to various international conferences and was famously cropped out of an AP photo of her and other (white) climate activists. In the book, she reflects on that incident, her climate activism, racism, and there is a deep emphasis on intersectionality, particularly the links between climate and gender.

I found the book a great read, it was an enjoyable mix of things that felt familiar (eg. awkwardly holding up a sign somewhere), but in a very different context, and Vanessa’s personal reflections and history. 

Some of my favourite bits of the book are the parts where she is describing her early climate activism.  Where she was doing something that was difficult to explain to people, often on her own or with only a few people, often feeling ignored by passers-by.  The questions of where to go, and what the signs should say felt familiar.  She mentioned that she wasn’t sure what to put on the signs but included one slogan which said ‘Thanks for the Global Warming’ which was intended to be sarcastic.

However, while there were elements of her activism that felt familiar, it was also clear that she operates in a very different context.  There was an illuminating discussion about how school strikes may be an option for young people in the West but are more complicated in a place like Uganda where schools have to be paid for, and where failure to attend can be more strictly punished by expulsion. She writes about adapting the school strikes for her local schools by bringing the striking into the classroom, with the consent of the teachers.

One of the threads which runs through the book is intersectionality, in particular, the intersections of gender and race with the climate crisis.  One of the difficulties she has in getting more women activists involved, particularly young women, is that standing in a public place with a sign is seen as not something a marriageable woman would do.  Or alternatively, she is only doing it to be noticed by men.  As she becomes increasingly involved in a global movement, she becomes increasingly aware of the role racism plays in the climate change conversations, as well as the reality of the climate emergency.  Not only is she cropped out of pictures, but she notes the general lack of voices from the global South and when they are included it can be in a tokenistic way.  However, she also pays tribute to the many other activists, particularly women activists who have inspired the work she does and she brings their voices into the book.

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