Climate change activist Hilda Nakabuye mobilizing Africa’s youth

By John Agaba

February 11, 2020

Hilda Flavia Nakabuye, a 22-year-old Ugandan climate activist, stood on the corner of a congested Kampala intersection, ignoring plastic trash that fluttered in the breeze and the emissions from ramshackle vehicles as she held up a green placard.

It read: Save our Environment. Save our Future. Uganda’s Temperatures are Rising. Keep Mama Africa Green.

The words were poignant and powerful, considering Kampala ranks second among the most polluted cities in Africa. But very few motorists and pedestrians paid her any heed.

Nakabuye, however, wasn’t fazed by the inattention. Sporting cornrows and wearing a blue jacket and denim pants, she raised her placard high, peering intently into the distance.

“I’m used to this now,” she said of her solitary roadside vigil. “And I’ll do it until every last one of us understands that climate change is real, and our governments start to take action.

“We have cut all the trees, built in wetlands and polluted all our water bodies,” she continued. “We have damaged our climate. Someone has to take responsibility.”

If the young woman cannot directly influence policy to conserve Mother Earth she intends to create awareness about climate change and rally youth to take action.

So every chance she gets, Nakabuye heads to the busy streets of this congested capital and hoists her placard, hoping that maybe, just maybe, someone will pick up the message and start to care about the environment.

Hilda Nakabuye takes her climate awareness message to Kampala’s streets.

As part of her awareness effort, Nakabuye also founded Fridays for the Future, Uganda Chapter, a student-led movement of about 25,000 young climate activists calling for climate action in this East African country.

The students skip class every Friday and move from school to school, telling other students about the reality that is climate change and what each one of them could do to help reverse the planet’s warming, be it planting an extra tree or choosing not to use kaveera (polythene).

On the last Friday of each month they all storm the streets, holding green placards that call for individual and government action to protect the environment.

Nakabuye’s followers usually flank the young activist when she is “striking,” but she was alone on the day the Alliance for Science caught up with her because it was early January, and most of the other youth climate activists were on a school holiday.

“I’ll do it [raise awareness] even if I’m the only one,” vowed the young activist, who is a final-year student of procurement and supply chain management at Kampala University.

“We have to raise our voices,” she added. “We have to hold our leaders accountable until they get the message. Every one of us has a role to play. We have to remind governments in the Global North and everyone who is polluting our environment that enough is enough, that Mother Earth can’t take it anymore.”

Nakabuye is clearly a student of Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish climate activist who began a global movement when she started her own solitary school strikes.

Sadrach Nirere, who is also a young climate activist in Kampala, said Nakabuye lives and breathes the “save the environment” gospel.

“Everything she does must be related to saving the environment in some way,” Nirere said. “She is a perfect leader we can have for our fight for the environment. One time last year she declined to fly to Lagos [Nigeria] for a conference because she wanted to cut her carbon footprint.

“She spends every free time she gets fighting for the environment. When she is not holding her placard, she is talking to students and school children to not waste water and fuel or use firewood. Other days she is picking plastic from [Lake Victoria] landing sites,” he added.

The young activist’s Fridays for the Future and climate change awareness movement have now spread across Uganda and her followers are recruiting other young people to spread the “green gospel.”

“The purpose is to form young leaders who understand that climate change is real and can recruit other young people to talk the same language,” Nakabuye explained. “We need the young generation to be eco-sensitive and to not pollute our environment and degrade our swamps like the older generations have done.”

Starting activism

Like many her age in this part of Africa, Nakabuye did not know anything about climate change, let alone that humans were responsible for the global warming that has led to the uneven seasons and unpredictable weather the planet is experiencing today.

That changed when she gate-crashed a climate dialogue by the Green Climate Campaign Africa (GCCA) at Kampala University in 2017. The GCCA advocates for behavioral change that can keep the earth green.

As a little girl, about 12 years earlier, Nakabuye had watched her grandma’s cassava, matoke and potato gardens dry up and grandpa’s livestock die when a severe drought hit these lands for close to a year. She hadn’t then understood the cause of the drought, and the hunger that followed.

But sitting in the climate dialogue and listening to the GCCA speakers, it all came back to her. Her grandma’s gardens had dried up because of climate change and human activities were to blame.

She left the dialogue a changed person, determined do something to create awareness about the looming crisis that is climate change.

Hilda Nakabuye plants a tree to help reduce carbon emissions.

Nakabuye volunteered with the GCCA and became a green campaigner. She started moving from school to school preaching the “green gospel” to save Earth.

“We planted trees, taught fellow youths to not litter the environment with kaveera or waste fuel,” she said of the “Green Thursday” activities, which included holding student debates about climate change and starting environmental clubs at various schools.

But Nakabuye felt there was something missing from the Green Thursday movement — something more hands-on, brusque, in your face.

The activist wanted to start a movement that encouraged young people to demand immediate environment action, but she also wondered what a 20-year-old could possibly do to influence the political leadership.

Everything changed in 2018 when she watched a video clip on social media featuring the then 16-year-old Greta Thunberg.

“Here was a girl almost five years my junior and she was leading this massive campaign,” Nakabuye recounted. “I had to do something. We [the youth in Uganda and Africa] had to do something.”

She introduced an idea similar to the global Fridays for the Future to her friends, and they all discouraged her. But that didn’t stop her.

In January 2019, she bought green manila paper, printed it with the words “I’m a young climate activist demanding climate action,” stood on a street right outside her university and hoisted her placard.

“It was such a scary moment,” she recalled.

But the minute she raised the poster calling for climate action all fear evaporated. She knew that standing right there, fighting for the environment, was what she wanted to do.

“Most motorists and pedestrians just passed by. Some would look at me and continue. But I had made up my mind,” Nakabuye said. A few people stopped and she explained why she was missing her classes every Friday to demand climate action.

She held her second strike in February 2019, joined by four other students.  The team decided to be proactive. Rather than wait for motorists and pedestrians to stop and initiate conversations, the young activists engaged them in discussions about climate change.

“This approach gave us better results and soon we had a following,” Nakabuye said.

The team set up Twitter and Facebook accounts for Fridays for the Future and also started to engage online audiences.

After the second “strike,” the team decided to include direct action in their activism, such as collecting plastic from city streets and the shores of Lake Victoria and launching a campaign against air pollution. 

On March 15, 2019, they led their first global strike, which Nakabuye described as “massive.”

“It was emotional. We had lots of students and other youth who walked from near Christian High School to the city centre, all hoisting flags and demanding climate action,” she said.

“There were all these people who now knew about climate change and they were calling government leaders and other people to do something to save Mother Earth.

“This was big for me,” she continued. “Some people were criticizing me, [saying] that I was wasting my future engaging in useless demonstrations. Some of my teachers said climate change wasn’t real. But I was there with these young people, all of us demanding action.”

Before conducting a second global strike in April, Nakabuye and and her followers formulated a demand paper, which they presented to Parliament speaker Rebecca Kadaga, outlining the steps they wanted Uganda’s political leadership to implement.

“We wanted government to declare a climate emergency so people can start to talk about this issue. We wanted government to include in the school curriculum an aspect of climate change and to ban importation of second-hand vehicles and implement the veto on kavera [plastic bags],” she said. They also demanded that the government implement the 2016 Paris Agreement, which calls for all member states of the United Nations to embark on an ambitious effort to combat climate change.

Parliament has not acted on their demands.

Fulfillment

That notwithstanding, Nakabuye and her followers have experienced some degree of fulfillment. The movement has grown from literally one activist to more than 25,000 young people scattered across the country, sensitizing and recruiting more youth to demand climate action.

The Fridays for the Future movement has also expanded to Gabon, Nigeria, Angola, Togo, Niger and other African countries, with young people marching in the streets to demand climate action.

“Our actions are starting to pay off,” she said. “Every other day, more young people come into the movement. We still have a lot of work to do until everyone understands that climate change is real and starts to engage in actions that can preserve our environment.”

But the young activists know they are moving in the right direction.

“Young people and youth are at the center of this movement because it is our future and that of our children that is at stake,” Nakabuye said. “The older generations have polluted our environment. But they have already lived their lives. So it is us who will suffer the consequences unless we take action. It is us who have to say enough is enough.

“We need to stop repeating the mistakes the older generations committed and hold our governments accountable,” she continued. “We need all voices calling for climate action. We need countries from the Global North who are polluting the environment to implement interventions to reduce their carbon footprint. 

“We want climate action from every individual, from all our leaders, and from the globe. We need to listen to science. We cannot take Mother Earth for granted anymore.”