BOOK REVIEW:  The challenge of Africa by Wangari Maathai.

I don’t think  I have ever read a non-fiction book that has brought  me to tears in quite the same way as that of Nobel Prize winner, Wangari Maathai’s : The Challenge of Africa.   The book was borrowed to me by a friend a month ago and now looks like a rainbow coloured index for easy reference on almost any  subject concerning the African continent today.   I do hope that the  new chairperson of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma  has a copy of it somewhere for  inspiration.

Like so many good things in life the book is unassuming, it is small enough to  fit into almost any size bag. It is just short  300 pages of easy but loaded reading. The Challenge for Africa, offers the kind of political discourse (forward thinking)  sorely absent on  Africa’s  political round tables, be it news-rooms or Presidential suits.  She puts the truth of  Africa squarely on the table, unapologetically and without the common defeatist attitude, that often polirizes the debates around how to solve the continent’s  problems.  She is also a realist using popular idioms and euphemism or poetic language only to illustrate a practical point.


South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma recently told a friendly gathering of Umkhonto Wesizwe Veterans Association :

“You don’t want to be in a wrong bus, a bus that you don’t know where it’s going….. I don’t just want to be a passenger in a bus , I want to be the conductor, because if someone else is driving this bus, the destination of the bus could be the end of you” – I am speaking as your commisar.”

The wrong bus is the opening theme of The Challenge for Africa. In the books’  introduction Maathai  says of the concept she developed during her 30 years of environmental activism, through her Green Belt Movement for which she was awarded th Nobel Peace Prize:

” Like travellers who have boarded the wrong Bus, many people and communities are heading in the wrong direction, travelling on the wrong path, while allowing others (often their leaders) to lead them further from their desired destination. It is my analysis that much of Africa today is on the wrong Bus”

She further explains this the wrong bus syndrome by offering practical examples of how this plague can be avoided.

” The current (financial) crisis offers Africa a useful lesson and its greatest challenge: Nobody knows the solution to every problem, rather than blindly following the prescriptions of others,  Africans need to THINK and ACT for THEMSELVES and learn from their mistakes”

And that is just the introduction. That paragraph is perhaps the most affirming and empowering statement I have seen or read in a long time. From a leader, a woman, a mother, a healer.  It is both liberating and empowering to think twice before I get into a bus driven by someone who doesn’t know where they are going.


Maathai puts the environment and its conservation at the core/center of the African continent’s hopes for development or progress.  By using nature and the environment and its conservation as springboard for development we can learn from our own and other mistakes and avoid going ont the wrong bus. Africa, she says has an opportunity and a challenge of taking a different bus, that would ensure that most if not all of its citizens enjoy justice, wealth, peace and respect. But in order for the environment to make sense within the current socio-economic conditions, Africans will need to go back and remember who they are. Me too.


She is not blind to the legacy of colonialism and how it continues to play a  critical role in Africa’s development.

” while colonialism was devastating for Africa, it has become a convenient scapegoat for conflict, warlordism, corruption, poverty, dependency and mismanagement in the region. Africa cannot  continue to blame her failed institutions, collapsed infrastructure, unemployment, drug abuse and refugee crises on colonialism, but neither can these issues  be understood fully without acknowledging  the fact of Africa’s past”

And here she refers to the self confidence that Africans lost with the arrival and introduction of western ideals through the colonial bus.

“Indeed through their power of suggestion, foreign cultures may reinforce a sense of inadequacy and nurture an inferiority complex in those constantly exposed to them as “better”. She adds ” This is partly why foreign cultures play an important role in power politics and in economic and social control. Once people have been conquered and are persuaded to accept that they not only are  inherently inferior but also should gratefully receive  the wisdom of the “superior” culture, their society is undermined, dis-empowered and becomes willing to accept outside guidance and direction”.

She continues to speak honestly about the use of language as a form of exclusion and dis-empowerment of the majority of Africa’s citizens who may not speak and understand the lingua franca or the chosen national language.

“Language is an important component of culture and an essential means of binding micro-nations together…..

” if people are not allowed to communicate with, at minimum, their local government in their own languages, it is almost as if they are living in a foreign country or being governed by a foreign power.”

The lack of attention to this issue by African governments (leaders) has spurred countless divisions and civil wars between the continen’t micro-nations. I can’t help but think of the current political situation in South Africa including concerns uttered by South Africa’s Deputy president Kgalema Mohlanthe  recently about rising tribal divisions within the country.  The fight for power and control has already begun in Kwazulu Natal and was recently displayed in open air killing of a rival party member outside a magistrates court, in front of the South African Police, Journalists, and the public at large earlier in the week.  You can read about the incident here.    It’s the kind of madness she says her own government in Kenya dismissed back  in 2000 elections –  warning signs which were left unheeded, or unattended to  until they festered and created the kind of election violence which  killed many Kenyans along micro-national(tribal) lines, in 2007.

We should all heed her warning as we prepare for the ruling party ANC’s  elective national conference in December this year and as we move to the national elections  in 2014,

” Where there is poor leadership, Africans need to stand up for the leaders they want and not settle for the leaders they get”

She continues by stating a fact that I am certain resonates, sadly, with too many of Africa’s leaders today:

” Too many African leaders have been the narrow heroes of their micro-nations ( the hutus, zulu’s, kikuyus etc) rather than genuine statesmen for the whole macro-nation (country).  They have played upon people’s desire to follow someone who will lead them from their difficulties into immediate riches rather than joining with them to solve their own problems by exploiting their own talents”

I get chills just reading that quote. The book touches also on the continent’s  ever present cycle of indebtedness,  the land question, its distribution and exploitation, agriculture, education, technology transfer and new skills, the question of the migration and the brain-drain facing the continent. All essential ingredients to peace and democracy on the continent.   I will allow you to read the rest  of  Wangari Maathai’s wisdom and insight for yourself and   trust that between it’s pages you too will discover your own path  – as I believe it’s a book which has something for everyone,  the exploiter and the exploited.  But before I leave you to it, I want to share with you two passages that summarize the essence of Maathai’s message for me (for us).   These are the passages that brought me to tears, and reminded me of who I am, and where I was going before I jumped on the wrong bus….

” In seeking restoration for my continent, I am quite literally restoring myself – as I believe, is every African. Because who we are is bound up in the rivers and the streams, the trees and the valleys….”

And this is MY AHA moment…

“Planting trees, speaking our languages, telling our stories, and not dismissing the lives of our ancestors are all part of the same conservation – all constitute elements of the broader ecosystem on which all human life depends”

My book of the The Year! GREEN POWER!

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