Two Ugandan women warriors fighting the same war, different ways. One turns 25 on November 15, the other is more than twice her age.
Let us start with the older one. Beatrice Anywar is currently Minister for Environment in the Republic of Uganda. Many foreigners first read her name as two English words — Any War. And they are not wrong. She will fight any war as long as it is for protection of the environment. Ugandans mostly know her as Mama Mabira, a title earned from a real, bloody war in which a few lives were lost a decade and half ago.
Many more would have perished had her opponent, the government, not relented and shelved plans to cut down a rain forest for planting sugarcane, which had sparked the war.
Mabira is the forest that she saved and Mama Mabira’s fame as an opposition politician grew like a wildfire, as Ugandans started hearing about climate change. But, with time, Mama Mabira came to a decision to fight her environmental wars in a different army. She ditched Kizza Besigye’s political party, the FDC, and joined Yoweri Museveni’s ruling NRM party. And the struggle continued, this time with the clout of the state behind her.
Now to the younger lady. If you are not Ugandan, there are high chances that you have heard of Vanessa Nakate than most Ugandans. You know what is said of prophets not being honoured in their own home.
If you google her name, the million or so results will probably be from international publications like New York Times, Time Magazine, Guardian and organisations that have honoured her. Paradoxically, you may not find results in a news agency that catapulted her rising fame to greater heights by, yes, by not publishing her!
It was in January 2020 when the young lady posed for a photo with four other climate activists at a big international event and the agency thought it was a good photo, but even better without her. They cut her out but she published the original via Twitter, showing she was the only black person in the group.
At the time, young Vanessa fumed that the agency had not just cut a person out of the picture but had removed a whole continent from the climate change agenda. But Vanessa soon mellowed and maturely gave credit to the agency for inadvertently causing the climate change movement to start seeing Africa, easily the area worst affected by climate change, yet the most innocent in causing it.
It was not the first time for the agency to disregard African persons, for barely four months earlier, they had published photos of five of the world’s most powerful leaders at a G7 summit, identified four by name and the fifth as “an unidentified leader”. He was Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa. Ramaphosa did not need to complain — a million Africans did.
Vanessa also learnt to make lemonade when handed a lemon. What then connects Vanessa Nakate and Mama Mabira “Any War”? It is a paradox, for it is their differences that unite them. While one is a muzzukulu — Uganda-speak for millennial, as popularised by President Museveni — and the other is turning 60 in a couple of years, they both made their name fighting for the environment.
And while both women were quite visible at Glasgow’s COP26 where Mama “Any War” led the Ugandan delegation which was at the forefront of advocating for allowing Africa more time to exploit fossil fuel to power development and attain climate resilience, Vanessa was leading activists opposing financing petroleum works on her continent Africa.
How about the politics of the two ladies? That is even more interesting. For while international media describe Vanessa as a leftist, it is doubtful if she gives a hoot about the power contestations in Uganda. Maybe she can identify who Museveni and Besigye are if the two men stood side by side, but not much more.
On the other hand, Mama Mabira worked closely with Besigye and then after several years of soul searching, shifted to Camp Museveni. The comparisons are inconclusive. But as COP26 wound up, both Mama “Any War” and Vanessa had reasons to smile about the energy issues back in Kampala. For, respectively, the important players in Uganda’s nascent petroleum industry reached their FID – Final Investment Decision — while the same week Kampala staged it “electric parade” that confirmed the country’s capability for clean mobility energy, featuring scores of electric boda bodas and buses for public transport.
But did the two have a chance to chat in Glasgow? And what motherly advice would Mama Mabira give to Vanessa?
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail:[email protected]