Book Review: Dr Wangari Maathai

Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith
Image: Flickr, PROAndrew Smith

Oh no, not another ‘new vision’ for Africa...

Since the Lagos Plan of Action was launched in 1980, Africa has given birth to some 20 grand recovery plans, or continental developmental blueprints, the last of which was Thabo (‘I am an African’) Mbeki’s New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD). Even NEPAD had two previous incarnations, the Millennium Africa Recovery Plan (MAP) and the New African Initiative (NAI). Besides the messianic zeal of those who would save Africa and lift it from its dark abyss, there is an arrogance and naïve simplicity that permeates all such continental blueprints. That is, until one reads this book.

Nine years after the Economist magazine proclaimed Africa the ‘hopeless continent’, Kenyan Nobel Laureate, Dr Wangari Maathai, has written a book that should be placed at every African seat of learning, and become prescribed reading for every African politician. More than this, ‘The Challenge for Africa’ should be read by Mothers and Fathers to their children, just to remind them of our past and the great potential of our future. And it is to Africa’s future that this book is dedicated. Despite the continent’s at times catastrophic modern history, an increasing number of African countries have now conducted successful elections, transferred power freely and fairly, settled wars, and embarked on policies and programmes to improve governance, development and the lives of the wretched. Maathai personifies much that is laudable about Africa’s recent renaissance and this book represents her accumulated insights, wisdom, and recommendations for the continued recovery of the continent.

A beneficiary of the same United States study scholarship scheme as Barack Obama’s father, Maathai is deeply African, yet writes in a style, manner and clarity that has resonance for all humanity. She embraces both her African roots and western influence, seeing, for example, no incompatibility between Christian liturgy and African practice. She is assiduous in insisting on the protection of the rights of minorities in Africa, yet sees regional unity, a la the European Union as a model to be considered on the continent.

Her infectious smile and youthful exuberance belie her 69 years and yet even before reaching her three score and ten; she has achieved more than perhaps anybody would one dare dream. There is a Mandelaesque quality to her life story and work. ‘Privileged’ by a missionary education, she converted to Catholicism and took the name Mary Josephine. Seizing the opportunities provided by her Kennedy Foundation scholarship, she achieved a Master of Science degree in the US. In 1971 she was awarded a doctorate in Anatomy by the University College Nairobi and in so doing, became the first East African woman to graduate with a PhD.

Yet her success has made her the target of prejudice, patriarchy and parochial politics. Her personal independence was demonstrably too much for her husband to handle, leading him to condemn and divorce her. Her political ambitions resulted in her losing tenure at university, along with her property. Former Kenyan Prime Minister Daniel Arap Moi’s government had her arrested. Her refusal to appeal to base populism resulted in her being voted out of office in the 2007 Kenyan elections. Moreover, she claims to have been a victim of the sort of poll-rigging, or wilful incompetence, that led to the shocking violence in the post-election period. If this wasn’t enough, she was also embroiled in controversy about her reported Aids denialism, eventually being forced to issue a number of clarifications to rebut these claims What is it about a prophet in her own town?

As an author, Maathai’s writing is as clear as an African sky. Her particular talent is to convey complexity simply. In the first half of the ‘Challenge for Africa’ she dissects the pathologies of corruption, venal leadership, patriarchy and prejudice that tether African development and keep good people down, yet does so without malice. The beauty of the book is that, unlike the magna carta-like sweeps of previous African recovery blueprints, Maathai’s point of departure for her vision is people, rather than politics, or power, or economics, or trade or aid. Africa needs a renaissance of culture, language, identity, respect and the family.

This is not to suggest that the author is oblivious to the impact of global politics on Africa. Nor is Maathai an apologist of the West. Slavery, colonialism, the Cold War and the highly uneven terms of trade between Africa and the developed North are all diagnosed as toxins that have debilitated the African corpus, but it is to Africans ourselves she urges, that we should look for the root and route of our recovery.

Maathai offers no turnkey solution, however, but rather a number of observations that, collectively, could help the continent to claim the 21st century. She observes that the extended family, the foundation of African society which has seen it survive through famine, war and devastation, has fallen into crisis due to modern work and labour practices, which include economic migration and the brain drain. Yet she notes the enormous potential benefit of remittances if used as a productive source of capital in Africa. Her optimism is supported by empirical observation. She notes that whereas African culture underwent a deep existential crisis from colonial times, today, African writers, musicians, sports stars and film makers are taking their rightful place at the centre stage of global culture. Indeed this is a book that is as much about reclamation as it is about proclamation.

But it is Maathai’s scientific training, combined with her years of Greenbelt Movement activism that gives rise to her most profound insights, hopes and vision. She notes that, if harnessed properly, productively and sustainably, Africa’s rich abundant natural resources are the key to a continental renaissance. Improved land use and animal husbandry can convert the continent into the world’s bread basket. If developed, Africa’s natural energy resources will be in demand from all major economies. Perhaps most importantly, Maathai notes that the Congo rainforest should not be seen just as a national or regional resource, but rather as a global treasure that acts as the Earth’s lung and one of its greatest hopes for the mitigation of global warming and climate change.

The continent’s first female Nobel Peace Prize Laureate dedicates this book to “All the people of Africa”. All Africans who enjoy the privilege of literacy should read it.