The late, great Dr. Wangarĩ Maathai has no shortage of accomplishments. Hailing from Kenya, she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was a professor, a politician, and an activist. In 2009, just two years before her death, she published The Challenge for Africa, her broad vision of the challenges and solutions facing her continent. Dr. Maathai was an environmentalist and clearly believed that there was no lasting prosperity for the people of Africa without caring for the earth beneath their feet. This wide-ranging book provides thoughtful insights — born from years of experience — on a host of issues. I didn’t agree with every proposal (and her optimism about the Millenium Villages Project did not age well, in my opinion), but there is much of value here. Here are a few thoughts that stood out to me.
- On global responsibility to Africa: “Instead of milking the cow called Africa to death, everyone should feed, nurture, and love her so she can thrive and provide.”
- On local responsibility for African development: “Ultimately the fate of the continent depends on its citizens. It cannot be overemphasized: Africans must decide to manage their natural resources responsibly and accountably, agree to share them more equitably, and use them for the good of fellow Africans.”
- On history and colonialism: “Those who wrote the history of Africa that is taught in schools were often the perpetrators of the wrongs that were done and wrote from their perspective. Quite obviously, they preferred to ‘forget and move forward.'”
- On aid: “While I applaud the motives of the international community in providing technical and financial assistance to developing countries, including those in Africa, I do question how much good aid does versus how much damage it may do to the capacity of the African peoples to engineer their own solutions to their many problems.”
- On depictions of Africa in the media: “As someone who raises funds to support work in Africa, I understand the importance of images, and recognize that pictures of Africans in dire circumstances can, ultimately, lead to positive actions from those who are moved to want to help. However, on balance, I find these representations–and the associations they bring with them–demonstrably negative, perhaps even shameful, since they risk stereotyping all countries south of the Sahara as places of famine, death, and hopelessness. Because the children or adults pictured are rarely named, they people remain abstract, symbolic, and no longer individuals. That starving toddler or weeping mother or child soldier is ‘Africa.’ This projection only makes the task more difficult for those of us on the ground trying to help Africans to help themselves.”
- On the use of colonial languages: “Even if another national language has been adopted, such as Kiswahili in the case of Kenya, the great mass of rural populations neither speak nor understand it fluently. It is my belief that denying someone the ability to communicate with their government, at least at the local level, is one of the strongest forms of discrimination and, indeed, means of oppression and exclusion.”
- On climate change: “It is in repulsing the sands of deforestation and climate change that the genuine battle for national and human security lies.”
There is much more. I appreciated the book, although I did find myself wishing I had read her memoir, Unbowed. She lived an amazing life, and while we get glimpses of that here, I wished for more. I’m putting Unbowed on my “to read” list.
This is book #20 in my effort to read a book by an author from every African country in 2019.