The philosophy of Wangari Maathai: Why we should all be Wangari-ists


Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons. Trees are living symbols of peace and hope. A tree has its roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from out roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all who have had success that we cannot forget where we come from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand.

I have chosen to open the blog with this excerpt from Wangari Maathai’s memoir ‘Unbowed‘ because, I feel, it sets the scene for the forthcoming arguments about WM’s philosophy. Much of her work is understood through the entry point of trees and ecological restoration, but she is a multi-dimensional individual. I want to share what I understand as her philosophy, and make a case for why we should all be Wangari-ists. These views are informed by substantial engagement with her four texts: Unbowed: One Woman’s story, The challenge for Africa, Replenishing the earth, and the Green Belt Movement. In addition, they are informed by engagement with communities  & staff that worked with her during her efforts to restore degraded forest lands – this was through the course of my doctoral research in the Nyandarwa landscape.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Slideshow of book covers

Following are some of the key defining elements of Wangari Maathai’s philosophy. Of course, you can analyze her thought from many other dimensions, but these are those that stick out for me.

  1. A deep environmental consciousness that is grounded in indigenous knowledge systems 

WM locates her story at the foothills of  Kirinyaga  where she was born. Kirinyaga  was later renamed Mt. Kenya  during the colonial era/error. The mountain was and is considered sacred by the Agikuyu people, the community to which she belongs. She details how the mountain served an anchor to the community because “everything good came for it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. Whether they were praying, burying their dead, or performing sacrifices, Kikuyus faced Mt. Kenya, and when they built their houses, they made sure the doors looked towards it.” She argues that these communal ecological linkages with land and landscape were dismantled by the destructive legacy of colonialism. She provides a poignant example of the Mugumo tree, which is also considered sacred by the Agikuyu people. When she was growing up, her mother told her that the Mugumo was a tree of God and it was was to be treated with utmost respect. Upon her return from the USA for her studies, she found that the Mugumo tree near their home had been cut and a church erected in its place!  She concludes that this is how “hallowed landscapes lost their sacredness and were exploited as the local people became insensitive to the destruction, accepting it as a sign of progress.” These and other experiences that were linked to Agikuyu indigenous environmental thought informed her future community-driven ecological restoration and societal reconstruction works.

Source: New York Times

Anecdote: A person who worked with Prof. Maathai told me that a Mugumo tree that was situated at the Green Belt Movement offices fell when she died in 2011. Nobody dared touch it!

2. A recognition of history as a weapon in social justice struggles 

This is tied to no 1 above because, I believe, history and indigenous knowledge systems are related. Throughout her texts and work, she engages with and reaches back into history to understand the present day struggles and triumphs. In ‘The challenge for Africa‘ she embarks in a thorough deconstruction and reconstruction of the history of the brutal slave trade, colonial occupation, and neo-colonial encirclement and links them with the destruction of Africa’s cultural infrastructure, humanity and associated livelihoods. One of her best examples of use of history as a weapon is during the struggle to save Karura forest from land grabbers and the Moi regime. At the height of her brutalization  by the state she said: This is our land! Our forefathers fought for this land. This is my blood! This is the blood of Waiyaki wa Hinga. We will not dignify theft. Now, recall that Karura forest actually exists because of application of indigenous knowledge systems. The elders who owned both Karura and city park forests left a death-bed curse and said that those forests should not be destroyed and they should contain indigenous tree species. When the colonial government took over, they established plantation forests there, essentially desecrating the landscape. Back to WM: She memorialized Waiyaki wa Hinga at the height of this struggle. Waiyaki wa a Gikuyu elder who was captured by the British and buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi. He was later transformed into a martyr for the nationalist cause during the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau) struggle for self determination. Emotive songs of protest featuring Waiyaki were sung to memorialize his humiliation, as well as to galvanize the struggle.  Songs with these lyrics were sung widely:

Wiyaki’s war was the first one!

Waiyaki called them and asked them!

You are letting all the land be taken away

What will your children inherit? 

When WM invoked Waiyaki wa Hinga, she located the struggle to save Karura in history. She remembered. She used memory to link the past, the present, and the future. The struggle to claim Karura from the sleazy tentacles of land grabbers was to be of benefit to all future generations. Karura stands today as a testament of  and an immortalization of that sustained struggle.


Wanagri Karura
Hired youth confront WM with bows, arrows and other weapons. Picture: Daily Nation
Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai dead at 71
WM is carried by other women after being brutalized by the state and state operatives. Picture: Kenya Talks

3. Community mobilization as a critical ingredient for liberation of African peoples 

Unbowed was the first of WM’s books that I read.  While attending a course in Rome, I met an Inidan colleague who was reading WM’s ‘The Challenge for Africa‘. I had seen the book in the book shops, but I thought it was another book whose focus would be on telling us what is wrong with Africa. At that point I had already been bombarded with too much of that, so I did not buy it. I asked my colleague why she was reading it and she said that she was going to be doing some work in Africa and wanted to get a better understanding of the continent. I decided to borrow her book  and give it a quick look. I was still quite skeptical at this point. I read the description at the back and thought: not bad. Then  I started reading chapter 1: The farmer in Yaounde. I was hooked! She tells a story of a farmer who she saw cultivating up and down the slope in Yaounde. At that time, she was in a hotel for a conference and observing the farmer from there. She tells the story beautifully and compellingly and finally argues that ” how many even see farmers such as the ones I saw that day? Shuttled from hotel to conference centre and back in luxury cars, accustomed to high powered meetings with donor or officials, many policy makers may not take the time to recognize how hard the people of Africa are working to make a living in circumstances that are getting more difficult, day after weary day….it is on the hillsides like these and with women that we must work. That’s where those of us concerned about the fate of Africa and her citizens must focus our energies, for it is where the vast majority of Africa’s peoples are, and it is with their lives that we must engage.”

WM Planting trees
Picture: Elephant Journal

4. Environmental issues cannot be divorced from governance, politics, and leadership discourse in Africa

Some people in the CONservation arena in Africa believe that it is not important to engage with politics/governance, because that is too HARD or DIRTY. But, what is not affected by politics and governance? Establishing small enclaves and fencing them off does not separate those enclaves from the larger landscape and associated governance challenges. Through her work with the Green Belt Movement, WM demonstrated that governance and politics are central issues in understanding governance, resisting mis-governance, and cultivating good leadership. The struggle to protect Uhuru Park,  Karura, Jevanjee gardens, Ngong forest, Mt. Kenya, Mau, Nyandarwa forests are all tied to governance, stinky bad politics, and pathetic leadership, where the state presides over the destruction of the environment on which its citizenry is so directly dependent. Leadership and governance remain Africa’s primary challenges- in my view.  We are now seeing a new scramble for Africa via China and others. To this end, WM’s words are instructive: In the past, people entered Africa by force. These days, they come with similarly lethal packages, but they are camouflaged attractively to persuade Africa’s leaders and peoples to cooperate. Of course, such packages are eye-catching to many African governments , not least because they may be free of “conditionalities,” such as respect for human rights, protection of the environment, and promotion of equity. She makes a case for studying Africa’s pre-colonial governance and leadership systems and applying them to develop robust political systems that serve the needs of African peoples.


5. Calling out the hypocricy of the West, understanding the foundation of white supremacy and racism

In my experience, foreign diplomats and businessmen speak politely when African leaders are present. In the quiet of their boardrooms and embassies, however, I’m sure they know all too well when the leaders with whom they conduct business are not doing right by their people. If their own leaders are doing the same things, they would be chastising them. 

Who can argue with this? Hyprocisy reigns in the extractive relationship between Africa and the the west. In the end, those who suffer are African peoples. The other day I was thinking: Is there any western nation that has shut down its mines in the DRC because it insecure and there is war? War, chaos, poverty are necessary for the west and others to flourish in Africa. Who manufactures and sells weapons of war? In her memoir she details her experiences with race and racism in the USA, including a time when a hotel refused to serve them drinks because they are “Black”. She describes her experiences growing up in a settlers farm in the Rift Valley where her father was a squatter. She observed how poverty of the African population was systematically entrenched through amongst others, the use of marketing boards, through which the Africans could sell their produce at a pre-determined price. One day he father was working in Mr. Nelyan’s Compound. She went to see him there and found herself close to Nelyan’s daughter’s room: Through an open door I saw a compartment full of clothes. More than 20 dresses must have been inside…”how can anybody have so many dresses?” I asked myself. It was as many dresses as I had seen in my whole life. At that time, I think I had two dresses, maybe three. Africans must study and understand white supremacy. They must understand and engage with race and racism. Shying away from these issues does not help us understand the assymetrical power relationships that characterize our world today. You can not solve a problem that you do not understand. Also, you cannot be the doctor if you are the disease.



6. Peace and conflict resolution – trees as an entry point

This ties up to the quote used at the beginning of this blog post. Throughout her work, WM structured her work around the tree, starting with the seed, to the seedling, all the way to fully grown tree. She encouraged communities that were in conflict to plant peace trees, again drawing from the well of African indigenous knowledge systems and environmental consciousness. The other dimensions of conflict were tied to environmental governance in the sense that if the environment is in good condition, then there would be less conflict over resources such as land, pasture, water, etc. How many African leaders understand this?


WM dig a hole

7. Transformative education

WM believed that education should be geared towards solving societal challenges and creating more robust societies. She is probably one of the leading  African scholars who used her scholarship and education for social transformation. In my view, one of her greatest accomplishments is changing people’s minds/transforming the way people thought about the forest and associated resources. Over the course of my research, I met elders and other community members who would say to me: WM helped me understand myself, she taught me that self-knowledge is very important, she also made me realize that the forest is mine and I should take care of it. Thus, her work helped to raise consciousness. It is very easy to build large infrastructure and other kinds of “projects”, but transforming the way people think has got to be the pinnacle of intellectual achievement. Regarding education she had this to say:

Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost.

Little thing

8. Recognizing one’s mistakes, failures and weaknesses 

I really like people who recognize and document their mistakes. When WM was the Member of Parliarment for Tetu, she encountered difficulties in managing the Constituency Development Fund. This was more a clash of ideologies – she believed that people who served in commitees or who came for meetings should not receive compensation because they were doing this work for the common good. On the flipside, the people believed that they deserved to be compensated for their time. She writes:

Although I believe strongly in the value of service…most people in Tetu are poor. Leaving their fields, putting aside work on their small businesses, or finding someone to look after their children in order to attend a commitee meeting was a big sacrifice. Several expressed their dissatisfaction….If I had to do it again, I would try to find a way to compensate those who served in committees.

Mugumo tree
Mugumo tree: Picture: Eburu TV

9. Spirituality and environmentalism

In ‘Replenishing the earth’ she draws on the religious texts and other verbal spiritual traditions of the world, to make a case of caring for the earth so that in return it cares for us. Infact, she argues that spiritual values, more than science and data, might be the true catalysts in solving global environmental challenges such as climate change. What if we all applied spiritual values of caring for one another, showing compassion, cultivating love, forgiveness, recompense, justice…instead of selfish values of plundering the earth and each other?  She calls for a REVOLUTION OF ETHICS among African peoples, and I would extend it to all other peoples’ of the world.

I call for Africans to discover and embrace their linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity not only so their nation-states can move forward politically and economically but so that they may heal a psyche wound by denial of who they are…It is they who must begin a revolution in ethics that puts community before individualism, public good before private greed and commitment to service before cynicism and despair.

Note: she also challenges the practices of religions, e.g., in Christianity where the clergy want to live off the poor, and in fact encourage the practice of earth plunder so as to give tithes and offerings. She gives an example of where a woman cuts a tree and sells it in order to go and give tithes in church.

Mt. Kenya
Kirinyaga/Mt. Kenya

10. I will be a hummingbird!

This one is best illustrated in this film. It centres around doing the best you can. Doing the little you can. Acting locally. Do not be overwhelmed. I also think of it as being relentless, like a Mosquito! Those who have spent a night with a mosquito will tell you that a small insect/small action can make you change or think differently. Be a humming bird! Be a mosquito!

I will be a hummingbird

So, there you have it. Do you need more convincing? You should be a Wangari-ist because:

  1. She thought in multi-dimensional ways, was a Pan-Africanist, embraced complexity in tackling environmental issues
  2. She believed in the power of African peoples and their knowledge systems
  3. She was not ashamed of her culture/heritage – infact, she used it as a tool for liberation
  4. She embraced her womanhood with all its struggles. Infact, she called for African women to be emancipated from silence
  5. She was a hummingbird and mosquito all rolled into one.

aburi park



A conversation about conservation in Africa: My perspective

This interview was conducted by a  masters student in a research methods class at the University of British Columbia.  They were required to interview somebody on a topic of their interest. So, we had a conversation about conservation in  Kenya and Africa.


Interviewer – We are going to start off today just to discuss some of your research, to begin with. I know you have quite a few experiences over the years, from your master’s stuff and now with your PhD work. I have read some of your papers on the work that you have done on the rock art sites and I am particularly interested in some of the East African cases you have worked at. So if you would like, discuss some of your research.

Me:  So, on the East African scope,  I worked  with the Trust for African Rock Art(TARA) . Our work was around rock art sites but the more you work with communities, you realize that these sites exist in a landscape setting. So, they are either within forests or on mountain landscapes or in other kind of settings within the larger cultural landscape belonging to that community.  In that sense, you end up not just focusing on the rock art itself as the particular heritage that we were interested in, but  dealing with other things – environmental issues, cultural issues, social issues, economic issues, and dealing with those things within the context of, or through the entry point of rock art heritage.

At Kondo UNESCO World Heritage Site in Kondoa

Interviewer – Yes, definitely – where were these sites located?

Me:   There were sites in Kenya – mainly in northern Kenya, western Kenya, in central Tanzania, and eastern Uganda. We also worked in Malawi.


Interviewer – And how many sites were there in total? How many communities were you working with?

In Kenya we had 4  community projects with the Abasauba people in Mfangano Island, the Iteso in western Kenya, the Turkana in nothern Kenya, and with the Abagusii people in western Kenya. In Tanzania it was the Warangi, in Malawi it was the Chewa, and in Uganda it was the Iteso – who are split in between the Kenya and Uganda boarder. The Kenyan and Ugandan Iteso people are the same people . It is the same landscape historically, but  the people are dissected into two by the colonial boundary which positions them in two different countries.


 So, what were the specific goals that you guys were looking at in terms of the research on the rock art.

Me: The main goal was to, of course,  ensure conservation of this heritage, but we approached it through the communities. That is, if communities understand the importance of this heritage, if communities embrace this heritage, they will be its  best defenders , better than any fence or any kind of infrastructure that you put in place. That was our position.  That is TARA’s strategy with regard to community engagement.   And that always turned out to be the case where there is good community buy-in,  and understanding of the project. And as the projects progressed communities would report other sites  and people began taking a lot of interest in it.

Warangi people in Tanzania

Me continued: So, our approach for community engagement was based on a set of interrelated objectives .What we call community engagement  is not training but rather, creating spaces of communities to share and exchange knowledge among themselves, and other people to contribute to knowledge, knowledge production  in a community setting. Discussions revolve around these kinds of questions: What heritage to you have in this  landscape?  How is it useful to you as a community? What’s your understanding of it? How has it changed? How can we make things better? How can we improve our livelihoods using this heritage? And then, the second part of that was promotion of that heritage, once we know that this is what we have here, then we ask how do we promote it within the community and outside the community. The other aspect is infrastructure development around sites, and then there is improvement of community livelihoods. Ensuring that there is revenue or trying to generate revenue through these kinds of things for community projects or community interests.

Working on signage for placement at sites  in Tanzania

So, in this specific example you have talked about how the conservation goal is around the heritage sites, you have approached this through a community engagement process and a co-production of knowledge. In general, in Kenya, what do you feel, where do you feel the motivation is in conservation. What is the primary goal, generally in Kenya.

Me: I would say,  what we see portrayed is the strong linkage between conservation and tourism. That comes out very strongly – that’s what we see. That, it is important to conserve whatever it is – the natural heritage, or the wildlife or other cultural things because of tourism. So that tourist can come see these things. Historically that creation of conservation spaces in Kenya and I think in the larger African context was associated with the colonial experience. Parks were created so that settlers or tourists could come and enjoy this pristine landscape. That is the origin of these ‘wildernesses’ some of which have been created at the expense of the traditional owners/communities of these territories.The communities are blocked and told : you cannot access it, you cannot hunt, you cannot earn a livelihood. But then we have this very beautiful landscape within a larger degrading landscape when people cannot attain their livelihoods or earn a livelihood.


Me continued: And a lot of resentment  develops around conservation areas with communities that are been locked out of these protected areas.  The creation of this exclusive spaces,   I feel, removes communities, dismantles communities from their landscapes. Not just physical removal, but also the knowledge systems  that are associated with active use of a landscape. If you are not using land, then you are not generating knowledge. That knowledge system  destroyed  it is not regenerated by way of using the land. That is my understanding of the historical context of the creation of conservation spaces as we know them today. That is not to say that indigenous communities or African communities or Kenyan communities have not historically had conservation spaces or protected spaces within their own social and cultural or economic structures of protecting their landscapes. But we don’t hear about that.



Me Continued: The current discourse about conservation in Kenya is about let’s preserve wildlife – especially wildlife, because that is the big thing – so that tourist can come. And this time around they are not shooting them with their guns. They are shooting them with their cameras. In the 20’s and 30’s they were shooting them with their guns – trophy hunting, which is not allowed in Kenyan anymore, but practiced in other African countries. So, really, to me the landscape of conservation hasn’t changed much because the word tourist in Kenya is equivalent to the white person.  So, we are still creating these spaces so white people can come and enjoy them- just like in the 1920’s and 30’s.  But how many people, Kenyan people, can access these spaces? How many people can even access the hotel industry. There is quite a bit of racism in the hotel industry. I hear people complaining about it from time to time. The people who get better treatment are the white people. Africans get poor treatment, in hotels and other tourist related aspects like the guiding industry and all of that.



Me continued: And then people start asking why are Africans or not interested in conservation? They are not interested in conservation because it is a hostile environment. That is one of the reasons I can think of. Also, who owns the tourism industry? If we say it is the main economic driver, who owns the hotel industry? Is the hotel industry owned by Kenyans? I mean, I don’t think so – I don’t have the data or the figures to support the argument but I think, the Kenyan people are the bottom of the tourism industry. They are tour guides, they are porters carrying luggage for tourists, they are chefs, they are not hotel owners, they are not conservancy owners, they are not in positions of power. The tour guides and chefs and waiters and all that, they are necessary positions to support the industry, but my point is that they are not powerful positions. They do not shape policy, they do not change the infrastructure of the tourism industry. They just fall in the line. So are we training our people to own the tourism industry, if we say this is the most important economic driver of our economy?  Are we training them to own the tourism industry or to be employed by people in the tourism industry? And who is it that owns the hotels? I don’t know! Most of them I think are foreign owned. Apart from, maybe, the community conservancies models which would be 100% community owned but I don’t know what the figures there as well.


Well, it sounds like some of these new conservancies are in response to a lot of these challenges. The marginalization, not benefiting from any of the incentives of conservation and as you are saying the connection to the motivation behind conservation and not being acknowledged as their traditionally livelihood strategies as being something that has naturally conserved the environment for many years. I think it would be really interesting to talk more about that because it is related to your research project . Could we could shift to your research?

Me:  Let me say something before we shift…


Me:  I am very dissatisfied with that kind of notion “I am conserving this so the tourist can come and take pictures” or whatever, do whatever. There has to be more to conservation for Kenyan’s, African’s, than just having tourists come to take pictures of things, or enjoy things that you yourself cannot enjoy. I am sure there are many communities that work on their landscapes and have understanding of their landscapes and have been doing things on their landscapes with other intentions of, I don’t know, maybe accessing water or spiritual sites, or sites of sacred significance, or other reasons but that is not dominant discourse. I think that needs to be the dominate discourse. That we are conserving this because it is important to us. I’m not preserving my culture, dance or making of cultural objects just because I want to sell it in the tourism industry. There has got to be more, I would hope,  there have to be more reasons that our cultural, natural heritage is of value, or is important.


 I would be interested to think about specific instances where it is possible to value your system beyond its economic importance within this global economy that is now of the globalized world. I think that when you at an area like the Maasai Mara where that has become a very valuable economic landscape, and there has been a lot of pressures on that landscape, and is it possible for a community member to demonstrate other value? How do we compare these relative values then? In order to have the true value of the connection to the land, and the knowledge of the land, and benefits for livelihoods compete against someone coming up an offering 300,000KES for their title deed. How do those two frames of evaluating a landscape compete?

Yes, that is the main problem. I think that everything is up for sale. Even your own culture is up for sale to the highest bidder. That is where you have people who say for instance they are Maasai when in fact they are not Maasai, and I understand that completely because it is a kind of economic survival strategy. How do you do it? I don’t know, but I think there has to be models out there, and I think they are there, it is just that we don’t know about them, of people who are able to communicate and demonstrate that there is more value to this than just 300,000KES or whatever amount of money. I am sure there are cases like that but you don’t hear about them.


 I imagine a part of it would be to have further recognition and understanding for the local perspective of what they value, what collective knowledge system are created in the local context. If I am understanding what you are saying you are suggesting that is not translating between scales of interactions. So while on a community level they may have an understanding of the value system, those values are not communicated.

Exactly. If there are good value systems within communities, the different ways of viewing things is not recognized, it is not communicated effectively, and it is always someone coming into communities and telling them what they need to do. Never asking what they think about the landscape, what needs to be done about the landscape or what their thoughts about the landscapes are. There is  still a lot of paternalism in engagements in conservation and it is always portrayed that African’s do not know how to conserve. That, they have to be taught conservation. It is really a very colonial type of discipline and space to date. It is very rare that you hear Africans being celebrated for their conservation efforts. I mean who have you heard being celebrated? Apart let’s say Wangari Maathai.


And the reason Wangari Maathai was successful was she demonstrated to communities that you are conserving for yourself. Not so that people can come take pictures of your forest. No! You are conserving this forest, you are protecting this forest so that you don’t have to walk for long distances to fetch water. You are protecting this forest so that you do not have to walk long distances to look for fire wood. You are protecting the indigenous knowledge systems through seed revitalization and indigenous crops so that you have food security. She demonstrated to communities that -this is for you.


Have you seen any practical or tangible effects of this type of empowerment within the forestry communities that you are working in most recently? Is there a sense that indigenous people or local people at that landscape are standing up and saying no, we are taking some sense of ownership here, we want to be involved in decision making process. Where is that at in terms of maybe the grassroots movement of engagement?

Me:  There is a lot of work being done at the community level. With or without the support of the government in some cases, sometimes in partnership with the government. But there are a lot of good people putting a lot of good work. A lot of effort. Conservation is really difficult work, really difficult work. And who bears the brunt of conservation? It falls onto the communities who do not even access some of this landscapes that we are trying to protect. So there are excellent community members doing a lot of work. Most of it voluntary work. To safeguard critical landscapes. I have met some people who work with the Green Belt  Movement, doing fantastic work, difficult work. Scaling up mountains with seedlings! First of all, collecting the seeds from the forest floor, propagating the seeds to get the seedlings, and then transporting the seedlings up the mountains where it is degraded. Planting them, ensuring that they survive, and restoring ecosystems. It is a lot of work! How much compensation can you pay such a person?  How much  payment is commensurate for the kind of benefits will accrue from these landscapes to millions of people who depend on them?


Community members of the Green Belt Movement preparing to carry  tree seedlings to the mountain for planting

So, why don’t we look for those kinds of stories and speak about them? I am tired of conservationists being portrayed as tourists or researchers or someone who is not from, I don’t want to use the word foreigners, but it is always portrayed that conservationists  are the ones who have saved whatever it is, elephants, lions. Conservationists are never  the local communities who have to bear the brunt of having their crops destroyed by elephants but conservationists are people who have the money, the influence, the exposure. Those are the conservationist or the saviors of African heritage. What about the people who put in  who put in the work everyday?  Put your hands in the ground, plant the tree or do something else, ensure that tree survives,  and to me you are an excellent conservationist. But that is not the way it is. People do a lot of work with conservation and in the end they do not get the recognition that they deserve.

This is a conservationist.

The other thing about conservation in the African context is that the continent is portrayed in terms of conservation attractions and tourism is portrayed as being emptied of human presence. That the only human beings who will be featured in conservation discourses in the massai jumping up and down for tourists. Showcasing their skill or other communities who have preserved their culture – but that is a very small segment of African who are engaged in conservation.  And then you hear case of say Cecil the lion, who was killed in Zimbabwe. It is huge uproar internationally, and Africans are wondering how a lion came to be known as CECIL.  Is it named  after Cecil Rhodes the imperial magnate who has done untold damage and destruction to African people, the effects of which are still felt today? If you do not believe conservation is a colonized discipline look no further than the names of these animals. You might also want to ask who is it who gives them these names.

Cecil’s goal was to colonize Africa from Cape Town in South Africa to Cairo in Egypt. He achieved his goal.


Me continued: So back to Cecil the lion. You have this discussion globally about how a lion has been killed, and the world(read white people) is outraged. The lion is even displayed on the empire state building in New York. I have never heard of anyone complaining that a guide or other person has been killed by an elephant. I have never heard of anyone saying the lion has eaten someone’s livestock or eaten somebody for that matter! So people don’t matter ? African people don’t seem to matter in the larger conservation discourse globally. Yet, they are the ones that bear the brunt of conservation. They do all the  the back-breaking work of ensuring that all of these spaces exist so that other people can enjoy them.

Cecil the lion on the empire state building

Me continued: There is then also the aspect of who makes decision about conservation. I just saw Judy Wakhungu(Current cabinet secretary for environment) post a few weeks ago  that they were trying to get the African elephant into appendix one of CITES,  hence granting it higher protection. But lo and behold, this move was strongly opposed by the EU. More on  that here. So, who is making decisions about conservation? Is it the people have the heritage or people who enjoy the heritage? There are huge issues around poaching and stuff, and I don’t know,  I just don’t understand. It just seems like it still very much related to the asymmetrical power relations that exist in the world. I don’t know how I got into that? What was your question?

 I think it is a strong point because to me it is a real disconnect between the scales of understanding of what is going on at the grassroots level to the county government, to the national government of Kenya to various NGO’s who are working on all of those levels to then, this international community who is  making these global decisions as you say about how important an elephant is without strongly determining if the context of where that elephant exists is going to determine where is should sit in conservation priority. Instead, they are asking the people who are perceived to benefit from it who are not the custodians of that land that the elephant lives on. From my personal interests I am really interested to know where research is going in this area specifically around the recognition around indigenous knowledge in these systems and I think a lot of your work touches on those aspects. How can an outside researcher can begin to engage in that process of genuinely acknowledging, representing and discussing local and indigenous knowledge in the context of emerging conservancies which I believe are a response to the marginalization, lack of benefit sharing, lack of ownership. How can the research community perhaps offer some validation of these systems? Offers some kind of platform to look at and recognize that these systems are participating in conservation. What do you see as the biggest limitations of that kind of research work that is going on in Kenya? Is it limitations of weather it is communicated well, is the research asking the right questions, working with the right people? Is it the fact that it is mainly outside researchers, that it is not coming from within the Kenyan community itself? I wonder whether the biggest issues today in research being able to validate some of these knowledge systems in the context of conservation.

Me: Well, I don’t think there is much research on that, on the conservancy model. I haven’t looked keenly, but I don’t think there is a lot of research on that, the community conservation is pretty new and if at all there is research conducted around that area it might not be necessarily around indigenous knowledge systems. It might be around other issues of the conservancy model because there are other issues. I don’t know if there are people working on indigenous knowledge systems.


Do you think that is part of the problem?

There are too few people doing this kind of work. Or who are interested in this kind of work. Indigenous knowledge is still pretty, very severely marginalized across the continent, and everywhere, globally. So, people who are working on indigenous knowledge systems are struggling to push this knowledge system out there. And then there is a lot of push back in terms of what is considered valid scientific knowledge. I don’t know who has to validate and who doesn’t have to validate. The point is, people have lived in landscapes for  millenia- forever-as far back as we can go.  You cannot tell me that if you are living in the landscape for 1000s and 1000s of years you have not developed a knowledge system on how to cope with this landscape, how to use this landscape. If you are an agricultural community you have to know science. You have to be the best scientist. You have to know the soil, you have to know the weather patterns, you have to know the crops, you have to know how to select seeds. To me that is science. If you are a pastoralist, you have to do the same. If you are a hunter and gatherer you have to have a knowledge system with which you engage with the land. If you are engaged in fishing you have to have an intricate knowledge of the waterscape in which you operate. We have to stop bastardazing people.  The whole question about validation speaks also about the marginalization of indigenous knowledge. First of all, we have to prove that we have knowledge. After we prove we have knowledge then that knowledge has to be validated. What gives them the right, or the moral authority to validate, when in most instances the so called “validators” are the ones that have contributed to the marginalization and the weakening of the indigenous knowledge systems?

Iteso people in western Kenya

But I hope there are good cooperation out there between people who work in these kinds of issues. If there are people of good will working with communities – I mean, it is just about respect. Creating an atmosphere where people can really make contributions and try and achieve something, instead of contestations of which knowledge is better, or who is better. Who is teaching who? I think anyone can learn something from anyone. No one  has monopoly on knowledge. So if that is the kind of attitude we have I think we can move further than saying this is valid, and this is invalid. Rather than having to prove you are right. That kind of contestation does not get us very far. Collaboration and seeking solutions and creating mutual respect and interdependencies I think, can move people forward.

Iteso children in western Kenya

Changing how the conversation is happening in this context?

Me: Yes!

 I think we can find evidence of this happening on a local scale, I struggle to see how that is going to move up the scale when you have the complexity of international donor funding, and national government agendas, all of the politics of these systems. I think that will be the next challenge.

Me: I think it is really worthwhile to consolidate the strong base with communities. I mean things happen because people make them happen. They just don’t happen if we sit back and say the international donors and the government and etc are so powerful and anti-change and anti-that. If we take that position then nothing happens. But, if people work towards something  then its good!  What is the goal of the international donors? What do they want to achieve? What does the government want to achieve? If it is tourism that is the driver of your economy as we say, then you want spaces that are dynamic that are well protected, in which people are supportive, not where there is contestation. When people are benefiting! So how do you achieve that by locking people out of knowledge production first of all, and out of participating in conservation spaces? Legislations are changing. Why are legislations changing? Because people have been pushing for it for years. The IUCN now recognizes ICCAs, Indigenous Community Conservation Areas, which are older than national parks and national reserves and all of these other conservation spaces. So that didn’t just happen. People have been pushing,  there are people working out there to make right the wrongs of conservation. Because conservation has also been unjust to communities. People have to keep doing what is right. People have to keep fighting injustice because all of this is tied to injustice.

 I think that is a great place to sum up our interview here.

Me: Thank you.


Afropessimism a disease of the soul!

I find that it is pretty difficult to encounter people who are optimistic or at least balanced in their perspectives about Africa as opposed to those who unleash bouts of Afropessimism with every statement that they make.  There is no doubt that Africa is one of the most misunderstood continent in the world.  The interesting thing is that those that unleash vitriol are  those with the least understanding of the continent or with a skewed understanding of the continent gleaned over from  the mainstream media that  only picks out the most depressing stories and drills them into our collective consciousness.   I was speaking to a colleague from a western European nation sometimes back and they told me that they really did not know much about Africa because all the narrative that is our there is that of starving children and endless conflict.  That is the truth but I find it hard to understand why this is so. We have a problem. We are in the 21st century which presents us with more accessibility to a wealth of information and counter narratives but old stereotypes seem ingrained in the minds of all of us – including Africans.  I will come back to this later.


First, let us start from the beginning: The earliest writing from Africa was presented by explorers and missionaries (precursors to colonialists) who portrayed Africans as people without heads. Sample these snippets about Africa/African peoples;

This is the land where men are children, a land lying beyond the daylight of self-conscious history and enveloped in the black colour of night. At this point let us forget Africa not to mention it again, for Africa is no historical part of the world. ”

Freidrich Engles (1820-1895) German social scientist/explorer.

One wishes they had left it at that i.e. the part about forgetting about Africa – things would be very different, no doubt.  Moving on…

The study of the negro is the study of man’s rudimental mind. He would appear rather degenerate from the civilized mind …. He has not the ring or the true metal. There is no rich nature for education to cultivate. He seems to belong to one of those childish races never rising to man’s state.”

Richard Burton (1821-1890). British geographer/explorer

One last one…

Human nature seen in its crudest form as seen among African savages is quite in level with that of the brute and not to be compared with the noble character of the dog. There is no gratitude, no pity, love or self- denial, no idea of duty, no religion, nothing but covetousness, ingratitude, selfishness and cruelty.”

Samuel Baker (1821-1893) British Explorer


The unfortunate thing is that this narrative has not changed and I am baffled by that.  Africa continues to be a bashed continent. There seems to be only two emotions that seem possible with regard to Africa/ns either revulsion or pity or a combination of both.  We must ask ourselves WHY?

It gets more appalling when the cynicism/self-loathing/self-degradation/ self-abasement comes from Africans both on the continent and in the “diaspora.”   Have a look at these two examples (based on real events);

  1. A student comes  from Africa an African country to study in a western university.  They find that there is an African professor in the department.  They refuse to be supervised by that professor because “I did not come here to be supervised by black people”. She gets an all-white supervisory committee. Halfway through the program she finds herself in a fix and realizes that the only person who can get her out of the mess and support her program and research is the “black professor.”
  1. A group discussion on philosophy is taking place in a campus class room. The discussion progresses and the student from an African country says “we have no philosophers in Africa”.

Sigh! Where does one even start when trying to deal with this?  T-R-A-G-I-C!


I find it rage inducing that more often than not, if you get into a conversation with an African/ group of Africans (in the “diaspora”) the discussion is bound to quickly get steered into a whining fest about how Africa is this and that and why this place(insert any “developed” country) is better. If you try to counter that you are quickly reminded that if Africa was that good you would not be here (insert the country). So, it means that all those who are in the “diaspora” are there because they hate Africa so much.  I say that this logic is illogical. And it is reinforced by the fact that I have met another brand of Africans in the “diaspora” who use all their energies to contribute to the rebirth of their society which has been relegated to the very bottom of human hierarchy by multiple forms of oppression – this group inspires me!  Kenyan scholar Micere Mugo recently said that we should remember that other people have come and settled on the continent for centuries and benefited immensely from it.  You have a right to do the same.  And to extend the argument further Ambalavaner Sivanandan argues that “we are here because you were there”.


Why don’t we engage more into the history of Africa – I find that if you understand the history of the continent your views are likely to be very different – they will be tempered with a careful and balanced analysis of issues.  Why do we not put some  more effort in trying to understand how the world economic system/global capitalism is structured? If we do then we may see the continent with new eyes?  Why is it almost seen as criminal for an African to feel good about themselves and to draw strength from their cultural heritage? It appears only other people have that right?  Anyone who tries to take pride in being African e.g. by appreciating an African president (especially those that are unpopular in the west) is summarily branded a psychophant.  I guess everything black is bad – I  am made to understand that even the devil is black.

October 2010 B 241

It is clear that colonialism and neo-colonialsims(s) has continued to wreak havoc in the minds of Africans.   I think we need to engage very seriously in colonial discourse – we seem to have forgotten all our collective histories of struggle.  Some will say that is the past but it is actually very much the present and the future if we still have those kinds of attitudes highlighted earlier. There is no difference between the thinking of those two students and the 18th century philosophers- or is there?  We have been trained to loathe ourselves and we have perfected that science.

Wangari Maathai reminds us that colonialism was designed to weaken Africa’s cultural infrastructure, infiltrate our minds, make us feel like we were not good enough and that our history and traditions are rotten.

She writes in the ‘Challenge for Africa’…a book every African should read.

“When communities were told that their culture was demonic and primitive, they lost their collective power and responsibility and succumbed not to the god of love and compassion they knew but to the gods of commercialism, materialism and individualism with the people’s granaries and stomachs being as empty as their souls.”

“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 undermines, disempowered and becomes willing to accept outside guidance and direction.”

What to do?

“What Africans need to do as much as they can is recapture a feeling for their past that is not solely filtered through the prism of colonialists. This will not be easy because 500 years is a long time to struggle against all forms of oppression.”

I quote extensively from Maathai because I think she is one of the greatest Africans to ever walk on African soil and she writes very eloquently about these kinds of issues. Other people have written extensively about similar issues  and we need to read their works. I am talking about people like Ngugi Wa Thiongo, Chinua Acchebe, Wole Soyinka, Basil Davidson, Okot P’ Bitek,  Gus Casely Hayford…you can add to the list.

Kakapel July 2013 (28)

There is a wealth of information on the internet now. You can have a look at these three.

The lost Kingdoms of Africaa by Gus Casely Hayford

Africa: A voyage of discovery  by Basil Davidson

Africa: A triple Heritage Ali Mazrui

Instead of sinking into despair and cynicism let us(me included…i find I have lots of ground to cover) let us engage, diversify our sources of information, de-colonize our minds, support people and or organizations that are trying to work towards resolving African challenges or social justice issues, use our work (s) as  avenues to further the cause of Africanhood/Africaness ….my point is – let us all do something ….anything BUT Whining because we need to find a cure for this disease. Yes, Afropessimism is a disease of the soul!