One day in 2018, while watching the news on television, Leah Namugerwa saw a story about how landslides had affected the livelihood of a number of people in a local community. Some had lost their lives while others properties.
Touched by the story, the 15-year-old asked her father Cephas Lukwago, two questions: Whether government was coming to the aid of those who had been affected by the landslides and if there was anything she could personally do to help. Her father answered both questions in the affirmative.
Lukwago went ahead and encouraged his daughter to utilise Google search engine to find some of the meaningful ways she would be able to offer assistance. As she explored, the name Greta Thunberg popped up somewhere.
“I researched more about her and found out that she was a brave outspoken teenager leading the school strike for climate movement where she encourages students to skip school every Friday as a way of demanding action from leaders and governments,” Namugerwa says, adding, “And, in some way, her actions attracted a lot of attention from people all over the world.”
Namugerwa immediately became inspired by Thunberg’s activism. “I therefore planned on carrying out similar campaigns in the country,” she says.
But her worry was whether holding climate change themed demonstrations was a safe initiative in Uganda. What if the campaign was misinterpreted by police as a form of violence? So, once again she shared her concern with her father.
“He encouraged me to start the demonstrations because they were for a good cause,” she says.
With her father’s permission, Namugerwa started her activism in February, 2019. She also went ahead and opened up her own Twitter account, a social media platform intended exclusively for documenting her work. Lukwago says he is proud of his daughter’s commitment to a global and crucial issue such as climate change.
Juggling activism and school
She shared the intentions with her school administration at Seroma Christian High School, in Mukono District. “They were understanding and even gave me permission to leave school every Friday to coordinate the demonstration,” she says.
That year, she was in Senior Three. Her father would pick her up from school and then take her to a preferred location. She has previously conducted her demonstrations in places such as Kampala City, Entebbe Town, Kiboga and Masaka districts, among other places.
In addition to the protests, she started a reforestation project known as Birthday Trees where she gives tree seedlings to different individuals to plant on their birthdays. The project has so far gifted more than 3,000 seedlings funded mostly by her family.
So, what do her protests involve?
“I just get a poster, write anything concerning the climate and hold the placard up. The intention is to make as many people as possible see the message and afterwards, act accordingly,” she says, “ For example, if I write on a poster the words, “Deforestation is destroying the environment, stop cutting trees, I expect people to read that and take action.”
Sometimes, she conducts the protests alone and on other occasions, with a group of friends or other activists.
Regarding the trials of her campaigns, Namugerwa says sometimes she is criticised by onlookers.
“Probably, in their minds they wonder “What is this young girl doing?” “What is wrong with her,”
“Why is she wasting a lot of time?” “Doesn’t she have better things to do?”
There is also criticism she has been subjected to on social media for instance, some say she just wants to be famous. Others are calling her Thunberg’s copycat.
“I am not in this cause for fame. I am here to sensitise people more about our environment. And, Thunberg is my source of inspiration. She has motivated me, like many others to fight for our planet,” she says.
For the rewards, Namugerwa says a number of opportunities have so far knocked on her door. She has been invited to different countries including Kenya, Rwanda, Switzerland, and, Spain to participate in climate change conferences.
In fact, it was in Madrid, Spain where she met Thunberg.
“I was very happy to see her. We did not talk much though because every journalist was trying to interview her,” she says.
Back home, she gets invited to different schools to speak to students and inspire them.
The plan for 2020
Namugerwa plans on continuing her protests every Friday. However, since she will be a Senior Four candidate this year, her family is planning on taking her to another school within the city, preferably a day school.
This is so that she can continue activism while also having ample time for her studies.
Namugerwa attended White Angels Primary School in Bulenga where she completed Primary Seven in 2016 before joining Seroma Christian High School for her secondary education.