Book:The Challenge for Africa

In her new book, Wangari Maathai talks straight and says many things we’d love to say ourselves, but lack either the courage or the fluency to do so. The Nobel Peace laureate lacks neither, and the Challenge for Africa makes a stimulating and refreshing read.Too often, she says, Africa is still presented as a helpless victim of her own making; a land of unparalleled riches, startling beauty,….of strange and at times primitive tribal customs, civil disorder, armed militias; of child labour, child soldiers, mud huts, open sewers, and shanty-towns; of corruption, dictatorship and genocide. These and other perceptions have framed the world’s response to Africa.This has caused a dangerous psychological process that subtly convinces Africans they are unable to chart their own destiny. Whereas, in fact, tens of millions of African women and men go about their lives responsibly, work hard and educate their children, often without means. These are the real African heroes and the world should hear more about them.

Covering a variety of topics: aid and dependency; indebtedness and unfair trade; leadership; culture; the “micro-nations” (wrongly known as “tribes”); the crisis of national identity; land ownership; environment and the family, there is nothing the author doesn’t include.She relates the experience of her own community, the Kikuyu, particularly affected by the colonial experience, and how they have been severely challenged to raise subsequent generations of children, many of whom have drifted onto the streets or are members of the outlawed Mungiki sect. In Kikuyu tradition, the “ituika” (translated as the “severance”) ceremonies served as term limits, and guaranteed to future generations that their time to rule would come.

Each generation of leaders understood they were being closely watched by the next, to ensure that the resources – privately and communally held property and natural resources- were well managed, to hand over to the next generation. The last ituika was due between 1925 and 1928, but was banned by the colonial government, and still remains incomplete.Wangari Maathai’s experience as a university lecturer, politician, political and human rights activist and expert on the environment gives her words weight. Democracy, she writes, isn’t all about “one man, one vote”. It also means protecting minority rights, an independent judiciary, an informed and engaged citizenry, rights to assemble and worship, and freedom to express one’s views peacefully without fear of reprisal or arbitrary arrest.

A challenge for Africa, she concludes, is that the nuclear family is often dysfunctional because the man is so often separated from wife and children -a practice that began under colonial rule-, and so cannot provide emotional and physical security for them. One of the most devastating experiences for any African parent is to see street children or child soldiers, or youth addicted to drugs, engaged in prostitution, afflicted with HIV/AIDS; or young men and women languishing in a state of alienation and torpor. How can such unfortunates create a strong society? A book to make one think, and hope that a better future is possible.

Book: The Challenge for Africa

Author: Wangari Maathai

Publisher: Heinemann, 2009

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