Wangari Maathai watched as a Kenyan woman farmed a steep hillside. Her techniques were poor and the slope was steep. Her precious topsoil was sure to be washed away. Watching the woman work with such effort but with the wrong tools and poor methods, Maathai saw in her the myriad challenges that face Africa today. But The Challenge for Africa is far from a cry for help; it is a call to arms. And though her vision is directed squarely at the African people, it holds important lessons for the West.
Maathai acknowledges that if Africa is to build for the future it must first face its past. The book shows Africa's colonial history as a disastrous period for the continent and how many of the problems faced by its people today stem from that past. It tells of Africa's loss of identity under its colonial occupiers and the disintegration of societal hierarchies that had developed over centuries. The resulting crisis of leadership, corruption and a reluctance to relinquish power have stunted development. Puppet governments, the exploitation of the continent's abundant natural resources and the use of African nations as a buffer against eastern communism or western capitalism have, for Maathai, left Africa both physically and psychologically scarred.
But The Challenge for Africa does not see Africa's future reflected in this history. It sets out to lay the foundations for how its people can move forward and Maathai argues that the answer to many of Africa's problems lies in supporting communities to develop at a local level.
Central to this blueprint is a focus on local action and environmental protection. By realising the enormous value of environmental resources and, by acting as their stewards, each community could develop successful local industries. Maathai's famous Greenbelt Movement - a grassroots environmental movement that unites local communities in her native Kenya to protect environmental resources has seen local people embark on tree planting schemes that have built up successful agro-forestry industries and protected precious top-soils.
For Maathai environmental protection is of utmost importance if African nations are to succeed in achieving the UN millennium development goals. She advocates a programme to educate local populations about the importance of ecosystems and the services they provide, stressing their value by highlighting the wide ranging implications if nature is mismanaged. For example, deforestation, illegal logging and over cultivation on the slopes of Mount Kenya has led to decreased water quality, loss of fertile soils, reduced availability of grazing land, a large diversion of government funds away from tackling HIV and Malaria, as well as a drop in hydropower potential thanks to silt deposits. The proper management of natural resources would not just solve these considerable problems but bestow great advantages on local communities; increased crop yields, better sanitation and cleaner water to name but a few.
Her vision moves African nations away from the culture of dependency that she has seen develop over the years. The billions that have come from aid agencies have rarely been supported by the necessary understanding to direct them appropriately, and consequently have often done little more that propagate corruption. By reclaiming Africa's problems from the West and giving possession of them to the African people, Maathai hopes that communities could start to build a brighter future. However, she stresses that for this blueprint to be effectual the international community and African nations must cooperate to create the free, democratic conditions for people to lift themselves out of poverty.
The Challenge for Africa is a manifesto for change whose message is as vital for aid agencies and governments as it is for a woman farming a Kenyan hillside.
The Challenge for Africa - A New Vision by Wangari Maathai William Heinemann Ltd (£20.00)