Wangari Maathai Outlines 'Challenge For Africa' Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai believes there's much more to Africa than can be gleaned from a headline. In her book, The Challenge For Africa, she writes about her plan to tackle the many trials Africa faces.
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Wangari Maathai Outlines 'Challenge For Africa'

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Wangari Maathai Outlines 'Challenge For Africa'

Wangari Maathai Outlines 'Challenge For Africa'

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Wangari Maathai has worked for many years at the intersection of environmentalism and politics in Africa, work recognized in 2004 with a Nobel Peace Prize. From a childhood in rural Kenya she went on to study here in the United States, then returned to her country to serve in government, in parliament, and to found the Green Belt Movement, which targets deforestation, poverty and the status of women.

Her status gives her a unique platform to speak and write as an advocate for a continent, and she is using it to call for fundamental change in politics, in leadership and in priorities. In a moment she joins us to discuss her new book, "The Challenge For Africa." We want to hear from you. If you're from Africa, if you lived or traveled there - what is the biggest challenge, the place you're most familiar with faces? Tell us your story. Our phone number - 800-989-8255; email us

You could also join the conversation at our Web site - that's at, click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, living the dream; the founders of a Canadian metal band rock on after 30 years.

But first, the challenge for Africa. Wangari Maathai joins us now from the studios of member station KRCV in Rohnert Park, California. And it's nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Wangari Maathai, are you there?

Ms. WANGARI MAATHAI (Nobel Peace Prize Winner): Yes, I'm. Thank you very much.

CONAN: I wanted to ask you, to begin with about the African nation that's in today's headlines - as you know, elections were held yesterday in South Africa. The African National Congress and Jacob Zuma appear to be headed towards a decisive victory. Is it fair to say that the future of Africa is directly tied to the future of South Africa?

Ms. MAATHAI: Well, of course South Africa is a very powerful nation and it has a base, an economic base, and it has been enjoying political development since Mandela that we felt would influence the rest of Africa in terms of advocating for good governance, more democratic space. How many of the various tribes in Africa - in my book I refer to them as micro-nationalities, and so it really depends very much on how the South Africa manages its evolvement. It's still evolving, but if it evolves in a positive way and manages many of the conflicts that have plagued the rest of Africa, then of course they have the opportunity to influence the rest of Africa.

CONAN: And similarly, if it were unable to manage these kinds of challenges and these kinds of problems, that would be a terrible sign.

Ms. MAATHAI: It would be extremely discouraging because then it would mean that South Africa has fallen into the same trap as much of Africa, south of the Sahara in particular.

CONAN: And you described this trap in - in eloquent language. And it's interesting to me. There are few more accounts more scathing than I have ever read of the evils of colonialism, yet you also write very persuasively about how colonialism is these days often used as a scapegoat to explain away problems that, well, these days need to be solved by Africans themselves.

Ms. MAATHAI: That's right. Because I'm saying that 40 years, 50 years down the road we ought to be doing things differently. We can't continue blaming the wars of colonialism (unintelligible) and as they are. And I think - I say that we need to address the issues - for example, the issue of corruption. You cannot blame corruption in Africa on colonialism. You cannot blame the excessive luxurious lifestyles that African leaders assume.

You cannot blame it on the debts and how we have managed the loans and the - the debt that we have incurred in the last so many decades. You cannot blame the mismanagement of the economy or the fact that we have not invested adequately in education in order to give our people the knowledge, the skills and the technology that they need in order to be able to use the resources that Africa has to gain wealth. And so I'm saying that, yes, colonialism was terrible, and I describe it as a legacy of wars, but we ought to be moving away from that by now.

CONAN: Ought to be moving away from that by now. Tell us a little bit more about how you see the integration between what you describe as micro-nationalities and the macro-nationalities, which are the larger states, which were, well, the lines were drawn in many cases by colonial countries with little regard as to where those micro-nationalities actually lived.

Ms. MAATHAI: Precisely, and this is one of the wars of colonialism that I refer to. And I want to urge the Africans to understand that they can't change. We cannot change history. We - but we can manage what we have, and one way is to understand that as - as diverse as we are in the superficial state, which I call the macro-nation, it's up to us now to negotiate with each other as politicians to understand how we can move these micro-nationalities as a united people and not to use these micro-nationalities as blocks with which we play politics.

And we see that time and time again, people wanting to get in power and using their micro-nationality as an excuse or as (unintelligible) and especially if that micro-nationality has a huge number. This is really a failure of the African leadership, and I'm urging that it is us, the Africans, who have to deal with that and persuade our people to work together so that we can move forward instead of engaging in petty wars that take us nowhere.

CONAN: And you talk about leadership and you write about the enormous ambivalence that you and many of your generation feel to the leaders, to the men that did so much to liberate their countries in the wars of colonialism 50, 60 years ago, for the most part, and yet that stayed on often long past their natural lifetimes, their political lifetimes, long past the point where they were beneficial to the people in their country. You were also critical of the later generation of leadership in Africa.

Ms. MAATHAI: Yes, in many ways because we were hoping that - first of all, that the first generation to a very large extent were very committed, a good number of them went into those positions because the people wanted them to be there. But unfortunately the transition from colonialism to post-colonial era did play - did - we did inherit some manipulations of politics and manipulations of who eventually ended up being part of the leader.

So that sometimes we ended up with the leaders who are really not committed to the people. They were really committed more to the colonial administrators, more to what I would call the mother country, than to the people. And that was because - that was because the colonial administrators were very busy putting the people they would work with who would facilitate their continuance, exploitation of the resources. But the second generation of - many of those leaders, by the way, were caught stealing the power by the Cold War. And that is where most of them lost it and most of them became engaged in the competition between the West and the East, and the African people really became pawns in wars that we fought, for example, in Angola, in Mozambique, for years in, you know, the struggles in Ethiopia, for example, the struggles in the Congo, DRC. We just pre-occupied ourselves with proxy wars and lost a whole decade and a generation of our people.

Now unfortunately, during that period, we have not been able to free ourselves from this entanglement, and their leaders that come get into that, get inside. They get trapped in it, and ideally, I'm hoping that at least through the African Union, which recently, as you see, has been trying to make Africa become more united, more focused, more democratic, that we can help each other get out of these entanglements that we have found ourselves in and which are making it very difficult for the African people to benefit from the resources that they have within their borders.

CONAN: But, uh, well, an opportunity to talk with Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathai about her new book, "The Challenge for Africa." We want to hear from you. I've been hogging all the air time, so if you're from Africa, if you've lived there, traveled there, tell us about the place you're most familiar with and the biggest challenge that it faces. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. E-mail We'll start with Saboom(ph), Saboom with us from Cleveland.

SHAGO(ph) (Caller): You talking to me?

CONAN: Yes, we are. You're on the radio. Go ahead.

SHAGO: My name is Shago from Nigeria but calling from Cleveland. I agree with the Nobel Laureate that Africa leadership is the main problem. All our current leaders should be lined up and shot. We are - Africa is a legitimate continent (unintelligible) resources. Take a look at my (unintelligible) in Nigeria. You have all these leaders are funneling money from the country, taking it to Western Europe for what reason?

When I was growing up, we had a good medical system - you go to the hospital, you be taken care of. Now there is no public hospitals. All the leaders get the money (unintelligible) treatment. Does it make sense? We are the richest, the most (unintelligible) folks in Nigeria (unintelligible) because it's not working. That's all I have to say.

CONAN: Okay, we'll get a response from WAngari Maathai, and we'll be generous and say that Shaboom(sp) was speaking metaphors when he talked about lining people up and shooting them.

SHAGO: (Unintelligible). That's all I have to say.

CONAN: Okay, go ahead.

Ms. MAATHAI: While I guess he agrees with me, he is challenging the African people to use the resources that we have for the people, for the development of the country, for the welfare of the people rather than for themselves.

CONAN: And there is a struggle underway, Nigeria obviously a major exporter of oil. In those areas, the people who live there, well there's a lot of violence going on, and a lot of struggle over those resources and who gets the benefits from them.

Ms. MAATHAI: I think when you compare, for example, Nigeria and Norway, you can see the difference between two countries, both of which are very rich and oil. And one, Norway, has become one of the richest countries in the West, and Nigeria is one of the poorest. It is the way they have managed the oil, the way they have distributed that oil, and that is really a classic example of how African leadership is managing the resources that we have and really being unable to create wealth for their people.

CONAN: Wangari Maathai's new book is "The Challenge for Africa." Stay with us. You're listening to the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Kenyan author and activist Wangari Maathai's new book lays out a vision for a continent. It's called "The Challenge for Africa." She joins us today from the studios of member-station KRCB in Rohnert Park in California, and if you'd like to read an excerpt from the book about how unsustainable farming practices threaten forests in the Congo basin, go to our Web site at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

If you're from Africa, if you've lived or traveled there, what is the biggest challenge facing the place you are most familiar with? Tell us your story: 800-989-8255. Email us, There's a conversation on our Web site, too. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's see if we can go next to Matt(ph), and Matt's with us from Louisville, Kentucky.

MATT (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Matt.

MATT: I grew up in Guinea, the Republic of Guinea, West Africa, and in the area of Nzerekore, and the tribe there is primarily called Mkbeli(ph). I think the biggest problem has to do with what you were talking about as far as micro-nationalities and macro-nationalities go.

Basically, the African people there are very group-oriented, which is great, but they distinguish between their groups, and so when you have a tribe or a family or a language group that comes to power, obviously the people who have the power cling to a lot of the power and the wealth that comes with it, but they also pass it on primarily to their group as long as they have it, and they really cling to those positions of power for a long time.

The president there just passed away, and then you see a military coup coming up, so…

CONAN: Wangari Maathai, is that one of the challenges of what you call micro-nationalities?

Ms. MAATHAI: Precisely. That's exactly what I'm talking about, and I'm saying that out of that is, of course, the fact that we say that the nations that we are looking at, they are superficial nations that were created in Europe in 1885. And there has never been, in the last five decades of post-colonial era in Africa, there has never been a deliberate and a conscious effort by the leaders to bring these micro-nationalities together so that they can negotiate a possibility of moving forward as one nation so that they can identify with the macro-nation, with the nation-state. They can identify with a nation flag. They can identify with the boundaries that they inherited from the colonial power.

Until we do so, the politicians - this is really the leadership, and this is - I blame the elites, and I put myself in that category because I've been there because we are the people who must educate our micro-nationalities that alone, we cannot survive. Even within nation states, we cannot survive. That's why the idea of an African Union is a very important idea.

The idea of a united Africa is a very good idea, but we cannot create that if we cannot even begin with the building blocks, which are the micro-nationalities. Instead, the rich continue to use those micro-nationalities for the purpose that the gentleman who was just talking just mentioned. It's to maintain power and to acquire power, maintain it and then access and control the national resources for as long as they can do it.

And that, of course, is what creates these conflicts because the other micro-nationalities will be doing whatever they can to bring that government down so that they, in turn, can sit in the chair.

CONAN: Matt, thanks very much for the call.

MATT: Well, could I add one more thing?

CONAN: In the United States, I think sometimes we have a hard time understanding this because we have become such a democratic society, but I think one of the areas where it can be most readily seen is, for instance, in this latest election cycle, where people were concerned, some people at least, were concerned about what would happen if we had an African-American president, as opposed to what we've always had. And the issue of minorities is the way we look at it, but for us it's just a matter of different accents and different ways of talking and doing things.

But we can speak to one another pretty clearly. We mostly share the same language. For them, there are so many barriers. The skin color might not be one of them, but the languages, the tribal customs, the tribal religions, they all break down their differences on the things that matter a lot more to the way they live.

CONAN: Okay, Matt, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Steve(ph), Steve with us from Boulder, Colorado.

STEVE (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

STEVE: I visited there a few years ago, and one of the things that struck me was the really stark line between the haves and the have-nots.

CONAN: And when you say you visited there, where specifically are you talking about?

STEVE: Well, specifically Cape Town, but I traveled around the region, and it seemed to me that so many people depended upon these wealthier countries, like South Africa, to solve all their problems or solve so many problems, to provide jobs and places to live. And you would see people coming from the southern part of the continent and traveling into South Africa, particularly Cape Town, and they end up in the townships, and they're just - the townships are just overwhelmed.

You have Cape Town, that is absolutely beautiful and cosmopolitan, and between the city and the airport are these sprawling townships full of just cardboard and cardboard shacks, dirt roads. I mean, it was really amazing to see those two things so close together.

CONAN: And Wangari Maathai, just a few months ago, we saw a lot of violence in South Africa as people from Zimbabwe were victims of attacks.

Ms. MAATHAI: Precisely, reacting to these feelings that these Africans from the north are coming southwards, and they are coming, and they are going to compete for jobs. They are going to compete for housing and opportunities, and South Africans, especially from the same level of economic - the same economic level, begin to feel threatened.

Now why are they running away? Not because their own countries are poor but because their own countries are being mismanaged, and they feel that if you go to South Africa, you will find better - you can improve your quality of life.

So this issue of inequitable distributions in many of these countries, the issue of a few people owning resources and the majority of people, many, many people being left out of the economic cake of the country is one reason why Africa is so unstable.

Now in order to stop this migration of people, then you create very strong, very stringent immigration rules from one country to the other so that Africans cannot travel even within Africa. Sometimes it's more difficult to travel within Africa than to travel within Europe, for example, or even the United States of America, and this is because if the borders are relaxed, if the traveling documents are reduced, then you end up having these huge migrations, which will of course cause disruption such as we saw in South Africa.

CONAN: And here's a related question, and Steve, thanks very much for the call, a related question by email from Anane(ph) in Hopkins, Minnesota. Why don't African leaders encourage trade between African nations? And to some degree that's a result, I would think, of well, difficulties of infrastructure, lack of railroads and highways, that sort of thing.

Ms. MAATHAI: Precisely. They have to invest in infrastructure. They have to invest in education. They have to develop political trust. See, when you have these micro-nations, and as you know there are 53 micro - there are 53 states in Africa or micro-nations - and every one of them has a president, has an army, has a huge police force. These are sectors that consume huge amount of money and take money that could be invested in developing infrastructure, developing hospitals, developing services that are important for the nations. And if you don't have - if you have a lot of poor people, you don't want to open up the borders because you don't want these poor people coming to your country.

And therefore, business becomes much more difficult between the nations because - and if you have poor countries, what do they do business around? They're too poor, and as you know, most African countries sell raw materials. Very few of them, apart from South Africa, add value to many of their products.

So they are very keen to sell to developed countries that will buy these raw materials in huge bulks, but between them, they can hardly sell anything, except maybe food.

But if they want alms, they have to go beyond Africa. If they want sometimes even food, they have to go beyond Africa because it's often given in the form of aid.

So, the political and economic system that we have created in Africa makes it very difficult even to do business between ourselves. But having said that, let me say that there is a great effort, especially within the African Union, to create economic blocks in Africa.

And so, you have the economic block in East Africa, in South Africa, Central and West, and even in the North. And the idea is create economic blocks so that Africa can start doing exactly what we are recommending -do trade between them and encourage trade between them. But this won't happen until we open up with the infrastructure, with the roads, with the railways and even with airplanes.

CONAN: Let's go to Omar, Omar calling us from Ann Arbor, Michigan.

OMAR (Caller): Yes. Thank you, sir, for taking my call. I'm very - a big admirer of your guest. I've seen him on - I've seen her on CNN and I, for sure, do know she's got a very good cause.

Yeah, Africa has got a lot of problems and, trust me, governments are the biggest problem. But individually, Africans do have to, I mean, be initiative of, you know, programs that could be, you know, help their own communities and get better and, you know, make developments for their own people. But on the government level, African governments do not bring anything to the table.

CONAN: And what part of Africa are you from, sir?

OMAR: I'm a Gambian from West Africa.

CONAN: And the biggest challenge Gambia faces?

OMAR: The biggest challenge is unstable government. The government just hires and fires people, and it's just not a very good incentive to go back to Gambia or to just be - thrive in your own country.


OMAR: But on a bigger note, for sure, Africa's problem is collective. It's just not an individual country for sure. Like your guest has been saying, we don't even trade amongst each other.

Gambians get almost all of the, I mean, (unintelligible) from abroad -Japan, China, America and Europe, for sure. And there's - those, I mean, sea of land that could produce about anything, with all the resources they have, they don't even trade from each other. It's way easier to fly to America than to go anywhere in - even, say, Western Africa. It's even cheaper sometimes…

CONAN: Omar…

OMAR: …you know? Those are all stumbling blocks. But individually -governments are hard to blame for sure. They will - it's going to take a long time for them to change. But individually, Africans are a powerful minority outside and they're doing fantastically very well outside.

And, you know, like I've stayed with my buddies out here, and they just don't understand why can't - this is my people, why can't they do better for themselves? You watch the TV, everything you see about Africa is so negative and it's so bad. They don't even classify you as an African if you are here and you look like decent guy, for sure.

But individually, we have to do better at initiating things that could make, I mean, our communities better on an individual level. You know, America is booming because everyone's employing other people.

CONAN: Omar…

OMAR: I'll give you a classic example of my brother. He's pretty much very well off, but he have a wealth of resources (unintelligible). He doesn't hire anyone. He just like to manage it by himself. And (unintelligible) employment, we could…

CONAN: Omar, your phone is breaking up, and we need to give somebody else a chance. But thanks very much for the call.

OMAR: Oh, thank you so much for the opportunity.

CONAN: All right. Appreciate it. We're talking with Wangari Maathai about her new book, "The Challenge For Africa." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And here's another email question, this one from Peter. How do developing African countries - like Kenya, where I am from - reconcile the desperate pressure to industrialize for jobs and economic independence and the need to be environmentally conscious?

Wangari Maathai, do you have…

Ms. MAATHAI: Hello? Yeah, thank you very much. Well, first of all, to respond to Omar and say that it is largely to respond to the point of creativity, innovativeness of citizens that I started the Green Belt Movement some 30 years-plus ago. And if, you know, one of you is interested, you go to greenbeltmovement, one word, .org.

You'll see some of the initiatives that we have been trying to carry out. And our major - the overall goal of our people, of our mission is to empower people, empower African, empower ordinary Africans so that they can take their destiny into their own hands and not become so dependent on their governments, and then their governments depending so much on governments outside so that we become a continent of people who are dependent. So, to try to get rid of the dependent - dependency syndrome.

And as far as reconciling development and environmental management, this is an old question that always comes up because sometimes we think that we have to sacrifice the environment in order to develop. And I think every study shows wherever - and even looking at countries that have developed, we know that we cannot develop at the expense of the environment.

CONAN: Yes. That is precisely what countries like India and China have done.

Ms. MAATHAI: Precisely. But sooner or later, they are going to have to invest millions of the dollars they are making to rectify what they are now destroying. And they're going to find - unfortunately, it will be the future generations that will have to invest millions of dollars to undo the damage that is now being done at the - with the excuse that we are developing.

Yes, we can develop. But if we do a lot of damage to environment, we will not be able to sustain livelihoods for the future generations. And unfortunately, many of us will not be around to see how the future generations will be suffering. And this is what we are tying to say, that we need to develop, but we also needed to develop in a responsible, in an accountable way.

And it is for this reason that even at the recent meeting of G-20 in London, it was emphasized that the environment is extremely important as we move in the direction that we are moving to rely less on carbon-rich sources of energy, and begin to rely less - more on carbon-poor sources of energy.

I would say in Kenya, for example, that we can develop, we can develop industries. We can develop agricultural production. We are a country that has a lot of resources, and especially forest. But at the rate we are moving, paying little attention to the protection of forests, we'll soon find that much of our country is a desert. And then, what will you do with - a lot of the development will be white elephants because you cannot live in a land where there is no water, where there is no food, where there is no clean air. You need these basic, primary resources.

CONAN: And Wangari Maathai…

Ms. MAATHAI: They have to be protected.

CONAN: Stay with us just a moment. We're going to take a couple more questions when we come back after a short break.

This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest has been Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, author of the new book, "The Challenge For Africa."

We had promised to let you go a couple of minutes ago, but I did not want to let you leave without asking you a question, and that is: Are you an optimist? Do you believe that Africa can overcome the tremendous challenges you've been talking about?

Ms. MAATHAI: I do. I wouldn't be here and I wouldn't be - have been working for over 30 years. I do, yes, I do believe. But I also believe that we need to address the challenges that I talk about, and that's why I'm really - that's why I wrote the book to try to challenge ourselves, challenges ourselves as leaders, as educated people, as elites, as people who can really change. And I want to say that when countries like the Americans can practice the three R, when countries like Japan can practice mutainai, which means do not waste, be respectful and be grateful.

And as you know, the three R is reuse, reduce, recycle. When these highly-developed countries can do that, surely Africa ought to be in the forefront. We can make it, but we need to believe in ourselves and we need to go there and dirty our hands and do what needs to be done to improve the quality of life of our people.

CONAN: Yeah. Briefly, we hear chaos in Somalia. We hear about warfare in Sudan and Darfur and the fragile peace agreement between north and south in Sudan. We hear about, well, the terrible situation that continues to happen in Congo. Is there something that gives you hope?

Ms. MAATHAI: What gives me hope is, for example, I had the privilege recently of working with the African Union to develop a civil society organization called ECOSOCC for the African Union, which is a mobilization of civil society organization and African people in general. And there are - I have been very encouraged to see that the African Union, for example, is no longer a club of leaders like - who would embrace people like Idi Amin or Bokassa. And we have come a long way from that, where the African Union says, if you are not democratically elected, if you are not accepted by your people, voted by your people, you cannot be a member of this organization.

And I see, therefore, that there is a new leadership - the current chairman is the president of Tanzania. There is a new leadership in Africa. But we need to put a lot of pressure on them, encourage them, support them, but also put pressure on them. And there is need for the African people as citizens to understand that they have to rise up and that all over the world, it's the people sometimes who have had to rise up to hold their leaders accountable.

But also in many countries of the world, it is the leaders who have risen up to show a commitment to the welfare of their people instead of having leaders who become predators on their own people.

CONAN: Wangari Maathai, we thank you for your indulgence and spending a few extra minutes with us. We appreciate your time today. And good luck to you.

Ms. MAATHAI: Thank you.

CONAN: Wangari Maathai joined us from the studios of member station KRCB in California. And her new book is called, "A Challenge For Africa."

Coming up: the story of a persistent Canadian metal band, been working for 30 years and they're trying to get back on top. Stay with us.

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