A WOMAN'S CHALLENGE FROM AFRICA
Wangari Maathei. Unbowed A Memoir. Anchor Books 2007
The Challenge for Africa. Pantheon Books 2009
Wangari Maathei won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her leadership of the Greenbelt Movement in Africa. In these two books (which make great holiday presents), she gives us a deeply personal and political account of ongoing struggles in Africa. She also challenges us to rediscover and build on the indigenous African identities that existed centuries before the slave trade and colonialism and reminds us that each generation's revolutionary struggles are milestones in a protracted and continuing evolutionary journey.
Born in 1940 in a tiny village in rural Kenya, the oldest child of a mother who had never learned to read or write but insisted that her daughter get an education, Wangari was a 13 year old student when the Mau Mau guerilla movement for Land, Freedom and Self-Governance exploded in 1953. Calling the rebels "terrorists" and declaring a state of emergency, the British detained nearly a million males, mostly Kikuyu, in concentration camps, but six years later was forced by the rebellion to grant Kenya independence.
(In Detroit churches on Kenya Sunday, January 30, 1955, Jimmy and I sold copies of The People of Kenya Speak for Themselves, a little book by Mbiyu Koinange that I helped write, to give Detroiters an understanding of the Mau Mau as Freedom Fighters. The booklet was dedicated to Njeri, the incarcerated leader of the African Women's League).
As a scholarship student at U. S. universities from 1960-66, Wangari became a serious scientist and also gained a sense of new possibilities from the developing civil rights and women's movement. Returning to Kenya, she was denied a university appointment because of her gender, divorced by her husband as an "adulterous witch" for being too militant, and imprisoned as a traitor for disrespecting male leaders.
As she struggled for her rights as a woman and a citizen of newly-independent Kenya, Wangari recognized that the economic development policies of the Daniel Moi arap dictatorship were eliminating the clean flowing waters and the rainforests of her youth, not only making daily life much harder for grassroots African women, who are mainly responsible for fetching water and firewood, but also increasing desertification and deforestation.
In the course of her continuing struggles side by side with the members of other tribes, Wangari re-discovered her Kikuyu roots. As a result, she recognized that the main reason why the new African leaders have so little concern for the needs of the people and the environment is that they have come to power in nation-states which have been structured by European colonialists with no regard for the tribal cultures developed by the people over centuries of living in spiritual and physical harmony with their ecosystem.
Therefore most Africans identify with their tribes rather than with nation states like Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, which they view only as boundaries on a map.
Confronting this contradiction head-on, Wangari decided that the African people can only become self-governing by going back to their tribal identities and replacing the nation-states of colonialism with what she calls "micronations." Until they do this, she says, there is a vacuum at the heart of Africa.
This is a very bold projection. But it is the kind of radical rethinking which all of us urgently need in this period. Our world is in the midst of changes as monumental as those from Hunting and Gathering to Agriculture 11,000 years ago and from Agriculture to Industry a few centuries ago. Yet our minds are stuck in categories, like nation states, unions and classrooms, that have come out of the struggles of the last few centuries.
It is a sign of our times that this challenge to break out of what Hegel called "fixed notions" is coming from a woman who was born 69 years ago in a mud-walled house without electricity or running water.