THE IMAGE THAT first brought Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate to many people’s attention is one that doesn’t even include her.
In January 2020, Nakate was invited to join five other young activists in a climate demonstration during the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland. An Associated Press photographer snapped a photo of Nakate standing with European climate activists Luisa Neubauer, Greta Thunberg, Isabelle Axelsson, and Loukina Tille. But when the AP published the photo that afternoon, Nakate wasn’t in it.
“Even now, well over a year after being cropped out of that photograph, it’s hard for me to talk about what happened,” wrote Nakate in her 2021 book A Bigger Picture: My Fight to Bring a New African Voice to the Climate Crisis. “By cutting me out of the photo they’d originally sent to global media organizations, the AP had denied an African activist a chance to be seen and, possibly, her message to be acknowledged.”
While the AP did some “soul-searching” following the incident, Nakate used the moment to ignite an overdue conversation about the whiteness that has long plagued the global environmental justice movement. “Being cropped out of the photo changed me,” she wrote. “I decided, from my perspective as a young African woman, that I would dedicate as much of my time as possible to addressing the many interlocking facets of the climate crisis, environmental justice, and gender discrimination — and to do so without apology or fear of erasure.”
Nakate founded the Rise Up Movement to amplify the voices of climate activists from Africa and launched a fundraising campaign for the Vash Green Schools Project to bring solar panels and cookstoves to schools across Uganda. At 25, she’s busy. And faced with a global climate emergency, it makes sense. “I don’t often get asked what recharges me,” Nakate told me when we spoke in early August. “But for me, it’s my relationship with the Holy Spirit.”
Raised in an Anglican family, Nakate became a born-again Christian as a teenager. “Activism can be very hard and prayer and attending services (or, in Covid times, watching online) have been extremely important sources of love, grace, and support,” she wrote in the acknowledgments of A Bigger Picture.
“If I feel distraught or disturbed by anything, I know the Holy Spirit will remind me of the peace that surpasses all human understanding,” she later told me. I spoke with Nakate via Zoom about her Christian faith, the role social media plays in her activism, and why we can’t eradicate poverty without addressing the climate crisis. — Christina Colón