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

| By Roger Thurow

Remembering the Post-9/11 Promises to Raise Foreign Aid

The 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks is bringing back a rush of memories and emotions.  Everyone it seems is recalling, with respect for the victims, where they were on that day when they heard or watched the horrific news.

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Coping with Drought

With drought devastating farms from the Horn of Africa to the Panhandle of Texas, I journeyed to one of the frontlines of climate change to “chew the news,” as the Maasai say.

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Harvest and Hunger – Part 2

At 6:30 this morning, as the sun was coming up, Sanet Biketi walked out of his small house made of mud and sticks.  Carrying a machete at his side, he headed straight to the edge of his maize field and said a prayer of thanksgiving for the arrival of harvest day.

| By Roger Thurow

Harvest and Hunger

Two scenes from the great African paradox of surplus and shortage – feast and famine – in the same country.

| By Roger Thurow

Empty Promises, Empty Stomachs

The promises made by the leaders of the rich world in L’Aquila, Italy, two years ago were supposed to stop what is now happening in the Horn of Africa. But those pledges haven’t been kept, and starvation is raging once again.

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Rowing in the Same Direction

Vision.  Strategy.  Tactics.

These were the priorities that emerged at my table during a discussion about the role of U.S. universities, government agencies, NGOs, foundations and the African diplomatic community in advancing African development.  

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Political Will

The Nigerian ambassador to the U.S., Adebowale Ibidapo Adefuye, tells an acerbic joke to illustrate the importance of good leadership.

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Countering Drought

This growing season in south-central Kenya has been a good test for the new drought tolerant maize varieties being bred in Africa.  This is a semi-arid area, but this year they can drop the semi.  Farmers report only three short periods of rain since the February planting time.

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Cool Beans

For some farmers in western Kenya, the hunger season I wrote about last week is coming to a mercifully early end.  A new variety of bean is ready for harvest.


| By Roger Thurow

Big Brains on Little Brains

Little brains were on the minds of some pretty big brains in the fight against hunger at the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security this week.

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The Importance of Innovation

Bill Gates came to the Chicago Council’s Symposium on Global Agriculture and Food Security with a confession.  “I’ve never been a farmer,” he said.  “Until recently, I rarely set foot on farm.”

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Public Policy Matters

I enjoyed the great privilege of giving my first commencement speech on Sunday, to the graduating class of the Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs at the University of Wisconsin.  I had eagerly anticipated the ceremony, knowing that the passion to shape a more just world inspires young policy makers as mightily as it fuels journalists.

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Something to Cut

With many words in this column, we have discussed what not to cut from the federal budget.  Namely, administration requests to fund agriculture development, especially in Africa, under the Feed the Future initiative and the Global Agriculture Food Security Program.

| By Roger Thurow

Yin and Yang of Foreign Aid

Here is the Yin and the Yang of development aid spending: In the U.S., it is on the chopping block, threatened by budget cutters sharpening their knives; in China it is on an expansion course, favored by a government seeking to accumulate influence and riches in the developing world, particularly Africa.

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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.

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