Changing the Face of Politics Podcast

Episode 1: Birgitta Ohlsson interviews Vanessa Nakate

Welcome to the first episode of the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics podcast series. In this episode, Birgitta Ohlsson, former Swedish Minister of Parliament and Minister for European Affairs, interviews Vanessa Nakate, Ugandan climate activist and founder of the Rise Up Climate Movement, about her experience as a young activist fighting against climate change in Africa and around the world.




Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing The Face of Politics podcast series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically-active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In this first ever episode, you will hear Birgitta Ohlsson interviewing Vanessa Nakate about how young women are at the forefront of political movements around the world, and leading the fight to combat climate change.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Hello, welcome everyone to this episode of Changing The Face of Politics podcast series. We at NDI launched a podcast series to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the legendary Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. My name is Birgitta Ohlsson, and I'm the Director for Political Parties at the National Democratic Institute, and a former Swedish Member of Parliament and Minister for European Affairs. And my guest today is Vanessa Nakate. 

Vanessa is a young climate activist in Uganda. She was the first Fridays for Future climate activist in Uganda, and the founder of the Rise Up Climate Movement. in order to amplify the voices of activists from Africa. I've been looking forward to this conversation, because you, Vanessa, are one of the great values driven role models of your generation, paving the way for a better world. 

You, Vanessa, together with Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, and many more, you are part of a generation of fierce, brilliant, and brave young women who are now conquering the world scene. And do you agree with Beyonce that girls are now running the world as she's singing?

Vanessa Nakate: Exactly. I believe that girls run the world, and I believe that when the girls run the world, then everything is in place, then everything is okay. 

Birgitta Ohlsson: I totally agree with you, Vanessa. Vanessa, you were born in 1996, the year after this legendary 1995 Beijing Conference and Platform for Action, and this year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, and at that conference 25 years ago, Hillary Clinton was then the first lady of the United States, later, the Secretary of State, she coined this word that is often quoted, "Women's rights are human rights." And, what do you think has changed for women in political leadership and decision-making during these last 25 years, and what has been the same? What kind of resistance have you met during your career?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, personally, I'm a climate activist, and what I've really noticed in women leadership is that when women lead, then we clearly see solutions, because some of the women leaders I've seen they have been very inspiring in their leadership, and they have been very direct in their leadership, and I've seen that when they lead, it's not about their positions, it's actually about the people that they're serving. So I think that we have seen more women join political leadership spaces, but I feel like what is lacking is the weight of their discussions.It is one thing to have the women at the table of leadership, but it's another thing to have the weight of their discussions really heavy, so I feel like that is something that still needs to be worked on. If the women are on the table of leadership, even their weight should weigh strong.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And do you feel that you as a young woman are facing a tougher resistance than younger men fighting for the same issues like climate, and so on?

Vanessa Nakate: Yes, of course. I come from a country whereby they do not expect young women to speak up for issues like the climate. It is a surprise to them to see young women coming up, and demanding for climate action. This is the norm of the society, but we, as young women, we have learned to go against what the society thinks is normal, because when we see that something is wrong, then we have to speak up to correct it.

Birgitta Ohlsson: I totally agree with you. And among the young female activists, because you all many young women that are dominating the climate debate right now, I think it's fantastic. Do you feel a special sometimes sisterhood between you in a very kind of male dominated world?

Vanessa Nakate: Yes. I believe that there is a really, really strong sisterhood, because at this point I know that I have a sister from Sweden, I have a sister from Germany, I have a sister from Kenya, from India, and different parts of the world, because we believe that if we work together, we'll be able to transform the world. If we work united, if we discuss together, if we demand for these actions together, then we can actually see a happy planet.

Birgitta Ohlsson: You are enormously courageous to do what you do, and when did you decide to become a fighter for the climate issues, and what kind of motivated you to get involved in this?

Vanessa Nakate: I remember in the year 2018, I wanted to do something that could cause change in the lives of the people in my community and country at large, so I started to carry out research to understand the challenges that they faced, and I was really surprised to find that climate change was the greatest challenge that they faced. I decided to read more about it, to understand those challenges, and it was such a notice that in school climate change is taught as something that either happened in the past or something that is coming in the far future that we don't have to worry about, and yet the present is so catastrophic, and it is showing us different disasters in different parts of the world. That is when I decided to become a voice in the climate movement to demand for action, because people cannot be happy if the planet is not happy.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And I can't imagine what kind of risks you've taken to be as vocal, and strong about the climate issues, both in Uganda, but also in the world. Can you tell us more about that?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, it hasn't been easy being an activist. It is a lot of work, especially from a country like mine, whereby we don't have much freedom of expression. In order to go to the streets to do the strikes, you need permit, and it is hard to get these permits, especially, if you're not backed up by a very big organization, especially, if you do not have any connections within the leadership of the country, so it has been hard to call the climate strikes. It has always been a risk. I've faced situations whereby I've been asked questions, and my worry has always been the people I'm striking with, because I wouldn't want them to face tear gas, I wouldn't want them to be imprisoned, but I thank god that we have not faced any of that. We have not had any activist being put in jail, even with the strikes. So it is not easy, it hasn't been easy, but we still go out there, and demand for justice, because we see that our future is at stake.

Birgitta Ohlsson: When I was exactly your age, 24 years old, my political journey started when I was selected to become the president of the Liberal Youth of Sweden. That was kind of old school politics going into a classical political party. And Vanessa, why do you think that so many young people nowadays, they're more active into movements, or civil society groups than political parties? Why is that?

Vanessa Nakate: I feel like this is because they have found their voice that society has for so long tried to suppress, because society does not teach us that young women can speak up, young women can be in movements, young women can do activism, young women can be in leadership. But we have realized that these are the norms, and the rules of the society - these are not our rules. And if we see that the society is not doing well, then we shall speak up. So I think that everything has changed because young women have seen that their voice is important in society. And I also believe that education of young women has also helped, because those who are so involved in leadership or in movements, they have had the opportunity to go to school. That is where also I think that one of the ways that we keep overlooking that we are not talking about, about solving the climate crisis is actually educating young girls, educating young women. Because when they are educated, they can make better decisions, they can get married later on, they can have abilities to understand what family planning is. So I think education has also played a part in making sure that young women and girls understand their role, and the power of their voice in the society.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And if you educate a woman, you educate a whole family, as many people say. That's also very important to acknowledge. But we also need you in political parties - we need you as presidents of Uganda, as prime minister of Sweden, as parliamentarians in Kenya, in Thailand, in the United States, so I hope that many of you will also go into the classical political future sometimes in the future. Do you think that movements, or the civil society are more listening to you when it comes to climate issues than the classical political parties?

Vanessa Nakate: I think they are. What I've seen about political parties, political leaders, they tell us that we are going to save the world, but they do not do what we are asking them to do. I feel like they praise us, and yet we do not need the praises, we need the action. The best thing that a leader can do for me as an activist is to actually do the demands, is to take the action that I'm demanding for, so enough with the praises, we have had enough of them. Now, we want action.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Very good, and a very good answer. And when it comes to, sometimes people are saying that going into politics is like running a marathon, you need to be very patient, you need to be very resilient, and so on, but you must be feeling very frustrated many times, because everything is so slow right now when the climate issues are not on the top political agenda.

Vanessa Nakate: Exactly. It is very frustrating, because this is an issue that involves human survival. This is literally a matter of life and death, that communities that are facing devastating impacts of climate change, that people who are experiencing massive water stress, food scarcity, conflicts because of the results of climate change. Some girls have to go in for early marriages, because their parents are given bride price, if they lose everything to climate change, so there is so much going on. It is frustrating to see that climate change is not treated as a priority in the political agenda, and yet it is something that is affecting every sector of our lives. We can not have any sustainable development goal achieved without addressing the issue of climate change. You won't eradicate poverty, you won't achieve zero hunger, you will not see gender equality, if we still have climate change, without it being treated as a priority. So it is frustrating to see that the greatest threat facing humanity right now is not being treated as a crisis, and yet it should be.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Your work, Vanessa, it includes everything from raising awareness to the danger of climate change, to causes, and the impacts, but you also do a lot of projects, like involves installation of solar, institution of stoves in school, and so on, and where do you face the biggest challenges, and resistance here?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, some of the challenges that I’ve faced have involved convincing people that we are actually facing a crisis. This is because many people are ignorant about the climate crisis. They don't understand that we are facing a challenge right now, and I understand them. Most of them are trying to meet their daily basic needs like food, education for their children, shelter, among others. So it has been a challenge educating people about the climate issues, because I've had to go to schools, I've had to reach out to different communities to try and talk to the people, and tell them that we are facing a challenge, but the problem is convincing them. And then, the project that you talked about, which I started, it involves the installation of solar, the installation of stoves, but as I speak right now, we have been able to do installations in four schools, and hopefully, we can cover as many schools, because every school gets fully powered with solar, and also the institution of stoves.

Birgitta Ohlsson: And, just talking about resistance, this year at the World Economic Forum in Davos, you wrote the tweets that made prime times news globally. You wrote like this, "You didn't just erase a photo, you erased a continent, but I am stronger than ever." Vanessa, can you tell us what happened at the World Economic Forum?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, I was invited by the Arctic Basecamp to camp with them during the World Economic Forum in Davos, and at this camp, basically, we were telling the leaders, through a silent protest, that we have left the comfortable positions, we have left the warm beds, we are sleeping out in the cold, to show you that this is the thing that you need to do, to leave the uncomfortable positions, the uncomfortable zones, because it's the uncomfortable things that will help save our planet. So I got to be at a press conference with Greta, Lusia, Loukina, and Isabelle, and unfortunately, when Associated Press released an article, I was cropped out of the photo, and my message wasn't included as well. So, that led me to tweet what I tweeted, because I was the only person from Africa who was at the press conference - that was already disturbing, because it showed an under representation of the activists from the global South. So I was already disturbed by that, and in the press conference, I had already talked to media, and told them to stop being biased, because climate change is affecting different people's lives. So it came as a surprise to see that I was actually cropped out even after asking media to include everyone, so saying that was to show them that we cannot have climate justice if some communities are being left out. There is no climate justice without racial justice.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Nobody puts Vanessa Nakate in the corner, and I'm so proud of you that you spoke out so clear, and loudly about this indifference, and people not taking the whole picture, and supporting you. And just talking about erasing continents, because we know that African nations are among the most vulnerable for climate change, and you also spearheaded the campaign Save Congo Rainforest, which is facing massive deforestation, and that was a campaign that came from Africa, and then later to Europe. But why do you think that it's so often the case that, as you mentioned, activists representing the South, from Africa, Latin America, Asia, are so neglected in the debate. Why is it like that?

Vanessa Nakate: It is the system. All of this starts from the system. I feel like the system that we are all under, it is a system that chooses whose voice is important, and whose voice isn't important, whose issue is important, and whose issues aren't important. And I think that the first step to make everything better is by dismantling this system that chooses who is better than who. I believe that we are all the same, regardless of where we come from. We are all affected by the climate crisis though we are not in the same boat. Some people are really feeling the heat of the climate crisis more than others. So I feel like all of this that we're seeing, the underrepresentation, the erasure of voices, it starts from a system that chooses to treat specific people as less important than others, and that is something that needs to change.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Strong and clear words from you. I totally agree with you. This year has globally been a very sad year, because of the pandemic, the COVID-19. And has the COVID-19 crisis kind of influenced, or changed your political viewpoints? And if so, can you give us some examples? And the social distance, and everything - how has that reflected on your very important work in Uganda and elsewhere?

Vanessa Nakate: With the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, different things were affected, including the climate work that we have been doing, because we had to social distance, so most of the strikes were taken indoors, and we weren't doing strikes on the streets anymore. But what I feel has come out of this pandemic, it has showed us that political leaders are able to listen to the science. They listened to the science of the COVID-19 pandemic. They treated it as a crisis, and put lockdowns, restrictions to stop the spread of the virus. So what I want is for the leaders to do the same for the climate crisis - to treat it as a crisis, to understand that people have been losing lives in this period. People have been losing lives for a very long time because of climate change. So now is the time for leaders to acknowledge, and accept, and treat this as a crisis, to listen to the science of climate change, and give the solutions that are needed to save people's lives. So what I got really from the political point of view, is that leaders are actually able to listen to the science, it is about their will. So we want political will to be able to address the climate crisis. It is time for the leaders to face the climate emergency.

Birgitta Ohlsson: So you think that the pandemic and everything that has happened this year, 2020, do you think that this will pave the way for more activities when it comes to also climate change, that the leaders will now listen to you more than before?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, I really hope so, and I feel like it is the right thing for the leaders to do. We can not go back to what the world used to be. We have to move forward. If the leaders were able to listen to the science of the COVID-19 pandemic, then they must listen to the science of the climate crisis. Anyone can be a victim of climate change. This COVID-19 has showed the vulnerability of different countries, of different communities - in terms of health facilities, in terms of food facilities. And some communities have had to experience even the impacts of climate change in this pandemic, so they had to deal with two challenges at the same time. Hopefully, the leaders can see the importance of listening to the science, and treating climate change as a crisis, and making sure that they provide the solutions that people need, because all we want is a happy planet and a happy people.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Finally, I'm a feminist, optimist myself. My grandmother, Betty, she was born 1912, and she went to school for less than two years. And my own daughters, they have enormous of freedom compared to her. And I'm just wondering, Vanessa, what are you most optimistic about for the future? What could your future daughters, and activist sisters look forward to in the world?

Vanessa Nakate: Well, with the massive rise of different young girls and young women in the climate movement, and the various movements that we are seeing in this current generation, I feel like it is going to be much better for the coming generation. Why? This is because we are showing the leaders the demands that we want, and we are also making sure that when we create awareness in the process, we are demanding for education, we are demanding for protection of the planet, so I feel like there is a lot of knowledge being put out by the young women, and young girls in this generation. So, this is something that probably my daughters would learn from, because they will know that if mom fought for the protection of the planet, then I can't do less. I have to do more. So I will know that I am leaving the planet in good hands, because whatever we are doing, I believe it is going to pass on to the next generation, and it is going to be stronger than it is right now.

Birgitta Ohlsson: It is like Beyonce is singing that the girls, they will for sure around the world now, and in the future.

Vanessa Nakate: Exactly.

Birgitta Ohlsson: Exactly, so thank you so much, Vanessa Nakate, for attending this NDI podcast. We will for sure hear much more from you, and your journey in making the world a better place that just started this journey for you. And this was Birgitta Ohlsson for the NDI podcast series, Changing The Face of Politics. And that is what we are fighting for at NDI every single day, changing the face of politics. Thank you all for listening.

Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing The Face of Politics podcast series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at


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