September 30, 2011 | By Roger Thurow

In the Shade of a Mighty Tree

Bungoma, Kenya

Norman Borlaug and Wangari Maathai were two unlikely Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.  One came from small-town Iowa, the other from rural Kenya.  They both won the world’s most prestigious award for growing things.  Dr. Borlaug, honored in 1970, grew crops that fueled the Green Revolution.  Dr. Maathai, hailed in 2004, grew trees and democracy.  They were both deemed worthy of the Peace Prize because they worked to forestall future global conflicts by producing more food and preserving scare resources.

I am writing this because Dr. Maathai passed away earlier this week, two years after Dr. Borlaug died.  And because it is big news here in Kenya, and should be everywhere else.

She was a pioneer who opened doors and spread democracy and gender equality in her homeland.

Dr. Maathai was the first woman in Kenya – the first in all of east and central Africa, actually — to receive a doctorate (in veterinary anatomy).  She was one of the first powerful female voices in Kenyan politics.  She was then, naturally, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.On the conservation front, she founded the GreenBelt Movement, which fought both environmental degradation and poverty, which Dr. Maathai insisted were closely linked.  The Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa, where the rural poor, unable to afford electricity connections, burn wood for cooking, heating and lighting.

Dr. Maathai, Peace laureate, didn’t shy away from confrontation.  Her most famous stand came when she took on the ruling party in opposing a government plan to construct a building in downtown Nairobi’s prime park and green space.  She absorbed many blows both verbally and physically.  The would-be builders eventually yielded.

“Her love for trees drove her to fight to save the environment, to fight for the most vulnerable in our society, to fight injustices, to fight for democratic space and this she did taking on strong governments and powerful men,” said Ruth Oniang’o , a Kenyan nutrition specialist and advocate for agriculture development that particularly benefits smallholder farmers.

Dr. Maathai grew up in rural Kenya and became a model for millions of girls growing up on smallholder farms where poverty and hunger threaten so many dreams.  It is precisely there where her legacy will reverberate.

In her Nobel speech, Dr. Maathai said life in rural Kenya was the inspiration for her work.  Now, she is the inspiration for women and girls in rural Kenya.

At a primary school set deep amid the farming plots of western Kenya, Dr. Maathai featured prominently in a parent-student-teachers meeting this week.  The principal asked, Who died in Kenya this week?  It turned out that the students knew more about the death and life of Dr. Maathai than the parents did.

Two who were at the meeting were Leonida Wanyama and her daughter, Sitawa.

“Wangari Maathai was a big person,” said Sitawa, an 8th grader.  “When I perform well in my studies like she did, I would like to be like her.  She was a leader of planting trees.”

“She made it possible for all of us to be leaders,” said Leonida, a village elder, a rare position for a woman.

The setting for this conversation on the legacy of Dr. Maathai provided an ideal tribute: An African mother and daughter, sitting together in the shade of a mighty avocado tree.

Archive



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The Ryan Budget and One Particularly Pernicious Paragraph

Since Mitt Romney chose Paul Ryan as his vice presidential running mate, many people have peered into the House budget plan that the Wisconsin Congressman shaped - the so-called Ryan budget — to see what it might portend for a Romney-Ryan administration.

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The Games and Hunger – True Inspiration

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Let's Keep the Focus This Time

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From AIDS to Agriculture

As we have heard during this week's international conference in Washington, D.C., there has been wondrous progress on the AIDS treatment front since President George W. Bush launched the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) nearly a decade ago.


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Just Do It

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Derailing Momentum

There is no doubt that the financial crisis roiling Europe has unsettled world markets, scrambled politics, shaken re-election prospects in several countries and darkened many 401-k prospects.  But as the drama stretches on and on, another mighty impact is emerging: it is derailing the momentum to fight hunger and poverty through agricultural development.

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A Beautiful Day

It was a beautiful day, as Bono might sing, when President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton and a phalanx of corporate leaders, and the Irish rock star himself, gathered in Washington DC on May 18 to shift the effort to end hunger through agricultural development into a higher gear.

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Neglect Reversed, Now Keep the Focus

Too poor, too remote, too insignificant.  That was the unofficial mantra behind the neglect of smallholder farmers in Africa for the past four decades.  It was recited by the farmers’ own governments, by rich world governments, by development institutions large and small, by the private sector.  It has left Africa’s farmers far behind those in the rest of the world.  It has left them unable to feed their own families throughout the year.  It has given rise to that horrible oxymoron “hungry farmers.”

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President Barack Obama issued an "all hands on deck" command to combat chronic hunger and malnutrition, which he said was "an outrage and an affront to who we are."

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A Transformational Day

The Chicago Council Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security opened with a jolt of urgency and possibility.



Multimedia

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Digital Preview of The First 1,000 Days

In his new book, The First 1,000 Days, Council senior fellow Roger Thurow illuminates the 1,000 Days initiative to end early childhood malnutrition through the compelling stories of new mothers in Uganda, India, Guatemala, and Chicago. Get a first-look at photos and stories from the book in this new web interactive.

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» Order your copy of the book.

Books

The First 1,000 Days

Roger Thurow’s book will tell the story of the vital importance of proper nutrition and health care in the 1,000 days window from the beginning of a woman’s pregnancy to her child’s second birthday.

The 1,000 days period is the crucial period of development, when malnutrition can have severe life-long impacts on the individual, the family and society as a whole. Nutritional deficiencies that occur during this time are often overlooked, resulting in a hidden hunger. It is a problem of great human and economic dimensions, impacting rich and poor countries alike.

Learn more »

The Last Hunger Season

In The Last Hunger Season, the intimate dramas of the farmers' lives unfold amidst growing awareness that to feed the world's growing population, food production must double by 2050. How will the farmers, Africa, and a hungrier world deal with issues of water usage, land ownership, foreign investment, corruption, GMO's, the changing role of women, and the politics of foreign aid?

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EnoughEnough

Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, award-winning writers on Africa, development, and agriculture, see famine as the result of bad policies spanning the political spectrum. In this compelling investigative narrative, they explain through vivid human stories how the agricultural revolutions that transformed Asia and Latin America stopped short in Africa, and how our sometimes well-intentioned strategies—alternating with ignorance and neglect—have conspired to keep the world’s poorest people hungry and unable to feed themselves.

Learn more »