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A climate change disaster led this shy 24-year-old from Uganda into activism
At 22 years old, Hilda Flavia Nakabuye stepped onto a very big stage. The audience was filled with hundreds of international delegates attending the 2019 United Nations Climate Change Conference, where countries were hashing out efforts to slow climate change.
"I come here to represent millions of African young people who are bearing the brunt of the climate crisis," she said. "As I speak to you right now, extreme weather events are killing people in my country."
As a climate activist from Uganda, Nakabuye knew voices like hers aren't often heard in high-level negotiations, where powerful countries dominate. Yet the decisions made in those rooms are vital to her country.
"We need leadership on climate action, not talks," she told the crowd. "For how long will you keep negotiating? You've been negotiating for the last 25 years, even before I was born."
She got a standing ovation and left the summit feeling hopeful. But since then, little progress has been made. While countries have released new plans to cut emissions, they aren't enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, according to the U.N.
As the COP26 climate conference begins in Glasglow, Scotland, Nakabuye, now 24, fears that voices from lower resource countries like Uganda won't be heard. COVID-19 travel restrictions and global vaccine inequity could be obstacles, she says. But it's a problem that predates the pandemic. "I do not understand why the most affected people are often underrepresented," she said at the COP25 summit in 2019.
Seeing climate change as a kid
Despite her conviction on the global stage that day in 2019, Nakabuye is not the biggest fan of public speaking.
"I have to admit that I was a little anxious," Nakabuye says. "I was always shy in school, so it wasn't easy."
Nakabuye first learned about climate change as a university student in Uganda, when she listened to a speaker describe how heat-trapping gases were warming the planet, causing rainfall and heat waves to become more intense.
And she had an awakening: She'd already experienced the impacts firsthand.
"I remembered my life as a child," she says. Nakabuye, the oldest of 11 children, grew up in a rural town in southern Uganda on what she calls "a very big plot of land" that belonged to her grandmother. Her family, who were farmers, "depended on agriculture for survival."
They grew bananas, corn, cassava and other crops, which fed them and brought in money at the local market. Then, about 15 years ago, recalls Nakabuye, extreme weather became increasingly common.
"We started experiencing these heavy rains," she says. "Our crops started breaking, falling down. The plantation was flooded."
The damage on the farm meant her family didn't have enough income to pay for her tuition fees. So Nakabuye, then 10 years old, had to miss school for several months. The family had to sell much of their farmland and livestock. And her father found a job in construction in Kampala, Uganda's capital.
Learning about climate change years later in college, she was overwhelmed with the feeling that she didn't want anyone else to experience what she had.
"It's at this moment that I felt very angry," she says. "I felt very annoyed that people know about it and they are doing nothing."
Sharing this chapter of her life at a speech at the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2019, she was moved to tears. "I am lucky I am still surviving," she said, pausing for a moment to collect herself. "I will not take this chance for granted."
Focusing on climate justice for Uganda
Those feelings sparked Nakabuye to join young climate activists in her country. In 2019, she helped found Fridays for Future Uganda, a chapter of a global network that holds climate strikes on Fridays, inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who missed school to protest climate change outside the Swedish parliament.
It hasn't been easy for the activists to engage Ugandan citizens on climate change, says Nakabuye, since many are focused on just getting by day to day. But the impact is becoming more apparent to people. Intense rainfall caused severe flooding last year on the shores of Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa, displacing hundreds of thousands of people. Millions of Ugandans also depend on subsistence farming, so floods as well as droughts can be devastating to their livelihoods.
But she still focuses on local environmental issues, leading by example. Her group regularly meets to pick up trash around Lake Victoria and educate people in the area about the dangers of dumping. It creates clogged waterways that can make it difficult for locals to fish. And the polluted water makes it hard for fish to breed. "We talk to the public about the right disposal ways — you have to put waste in the rubbish bin," she says. "They're starting to realize [the impact that] dumping has on their lives and their community," she said in an interview with UNESCO in 2020.
One of Nakabuye's main messages is that climate change is everyone's problem – not just for those who are experiencing it. During her speech at the Mayors summit in 2019, she issued a warning for those who remain indifferent to the cause — and a pledge: "your beds might be comfortable now but not for long. You will soon feel the same heat we feel every day. And I also promise you: Rest assured that youth from the other side of the world are fighting for a safe future for you and for us all and are not about to give up."
Fridays for Future Uganda now has over 50,000 members, and a few representatives are traveling to COP26 to share their priorities. Among their asks: improve climate change education in schools and carve out grants specifically for young people to help their communities prepare for climate change and train them for careers in the renewable energy industry.
"This is a matter of life and death," Nakabuye says. "And our survival depends on the actions we take right now."
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