Why Africa’s future is green

2009-07-22 00:00

KENYANS call their taxis matatus. Under the regime of strongman Daniel arap Moi, the drivers had a cosy financial relationship with the police, the effect of which was higher fares. After the 2002 elections, emboldened passengers asserting their civic rights demanded that this stop. It did, but only for a while.

There are endless books on the woes of Africa. In her carefully written manifesto for its future, Nobel peace prize winner Wangari Maathai covers this ground, thoroughly presenting the inevitable statistics and exposing predictable villains. Africa has half of the world’s child deaths and half her people live on less than a dollar a day. A colonial past and neocolonial present are indisputable factors. They have produced what Maathai calls a colonisation of the mind and highly unfavourable trade relations.

But she is quick to point also to local social and leadership failure. “Because Africa has not had a culture of writing,” she writes, “it has been easy to promote a culture of forgetting.” It is an intriguing echo of Milan Kundera’s words about the role of memory in political struggle. Africans have not reaped a post-colonial dividend, nor inherited Maathai’s symbolic three-legged stool: democracy, sustainable development and peace. One of the reasons for this is that African leaders have recolonised their own countries.

Maathai’s origins are in environmental activism and the Green Belt Movement (GBM), so she goes into great detail about the importance of protecting one of the world’s lungs, the Congo basin forest, a quarter of which has already been carved up into logging concessions. But in the forests of Kenya’s Aberdare mountains, where GBM started a process of rehabilitation, shambas (cleared, cultivated areas) have reappeared and Maathai deplores the inability to see the bigger picture. Environmental degradation, she points out, may end in violent conflict.

From 2002 until 2007, she was a member of parliament and she describes in compelling detail her pioneering and democratic system for the disbursement of development aid that filtered down to ward level. This put into practice her belief that Africa’s problems cannot be addressed without engaging the rural poor. It culminated in a five-year plan, but Maathai lost her seat when she put national interest before her ethnicity and, bizarrely, was called a traitor.

As a grass-roots activist she is someone to be taken seriously. A recurrent theme of this book is a failure of leadership, in particular a tendency to fall back on the mobilisation of micronations, a term Maathai prefers to tribe. She sees the future in terms of preserving the best of traditional culture and combining it with modern practice as a progressive force. Sensibly, she advocates strength in diversity: the promotion of difference has cost Africa dearly. And a critical mass of citizens must displace the elites who surround the political big men and seem virtually indestructible.

Africa is not helping itself. A continent of enormous potential wealth, it apparently has no answer to colossal deprivation. There is a strong sub-text of black consciousness to Maathai’s writing, suggesting that salvation lies in the hands and minds of Africans; and that sustainable, accountable and equitable development is a matter not just of economics and politics, but of psychology, identity and even spirituality. The past has to be managed in the interests of determining the future; and that future has to be multi-ethnic.

Naturally, Maathai seeks this in environmental conservation, which she interprets as a broad reclamation of humanity and of history. She points out that we are ultimately dependent on the natural world and that what we are able to call our own defines us. Positive signs can be found in the tree planters of Niger, defying the spread of the Sahara; the keyhole gardeners of Les­otho, with their sustainable vegetable production; action taken to eliminate plastic bags in some countries and to reduce pools of stagnant water that breed malarial mosquitoes; and even the Nairobi matatu passengers insisting on their rights.

But, as Maathai puts it, a wall still separates too many Africans from justice, respect, and economic and physical security. Her prescription is well grounded in reality, and sober and sensible in its demands. But in spite of her cultural roots and grass-roots credentials, not even she can predict whether far-sighted planning will replace crisis management as the norm or when communities will become more important than commodities.

Perhaps we shall know when the famous big five are assumed not to be a group of wild animals, but Maathai’s indicators of the quality of life: education, health, food security, electricity, and water and sanitation.

• Wangari Maathai, The challenge for Africa: a new vision is published by Heinemann.

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