Wednesday, August 18, 2010


The Challenge for Africa

Wow. I'm still absorbing this book and the many, many, many ideas it casually contains. To start off, here's Publishers Weekly's review:

"Africa's moral and cultural dysfunctions loom as large as its material problems in this wide-ranging jeremiad. Maathai (Unbowed), a Kenyan biologist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for organizing the tree-planting Green Belt Movement, surveys Africa's struggle with poverty and disease, political violence, climate change, the legacy of colonialism and a global economy that's stacked against it. But the deeper problem she sees is the selfishness, opportunism and shortsightedness of Africans themselves, from leaders who exploit their countrymen and loot their nations' resources to poor farmers who ruin the land for short-term gain. Maathai means this as an empowering message aimed at a mindset of dependency that would rather wait for someone to magically make development happen; she urges Africans to recover indigenous traditions of community solidarity and self-help, along with the virtues of honesty, fairness and hard work. Maathai shrewdly analyzes the links between environmental degradation and underdevelopment, and floats intriguing proposals, like banning plastic bags as a malaria-abatement measure. But the challenges she addresses are vast and intractable—and sadly, many of the development and environmental initiatives she extols seem to have already fizzled."

I was very impressed by her argument, her intellect, and both her optimism and skepticism. My thoughts, as a white American who has never been to Africa and has taken a college class focused largely on the effects of colonialism, run naturally to a guilt of the developed world taking advantage of a resource-rich undeveloped world. If the continent didn't have to deal with this, I think, then things would be different.

Maathai says that yes - while the developed world needs to cancel the debts incurred by African leaders who plainly could not pay them back, and while the mining companies headquartered in rich countries should be mindful of the terrible effect that their resource extraction has on the local populace, and while foreign governments and companies prolong and enable warfare and suffering by selling weapons to warlords, and while Russian fishing trawlers fish the waters off Angola, bring the fish back to Russia, and ship them frozen back to Angola to sell in the market - the real palpable fault lies with African leaders. These leaders, she says, have the benefit of education and influence, money and power, yet largely choose to squander it all on self-aggrandizement, short-term thinking, uneducated decisions, and ignoring the lessons learned by other countries. She has a long list and a comprehensive plan that these leaders should follow in order to: strengthen democratic institutions and revive trust in the government; respect and preserve natural resources so that all may benefit for centuries to come; and foster a culture of peace so that societies and families exist to be able to implement and take advantage of the other two "legs of the stool."

You could make the argument that she is arguing for utopia, but because her recommendations and observations are so attainable, and so logical, and so easy, this argument is unfair. Africa deserves even some tiny steps toward utopia, doesn't it?

Her writing is clear, very intelligent, thoughtful, and powerful. I sincerely hope people listen to her - both here and in Africa.

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