March 8, 2010

In Honour of Wangari Maathai on International Women’s Day for Ghana

I remember being in Vietnam in late 2006 for Vietnamese Women’s Day and then in March 2007 for International Women’s Day. The timing was a coincidence. On the first occasion I was invited to a lunch with our partner organisation during which they honoured about a dozen of their Vietnamese female staff (and two of us expats) with bunches of flowers and a feast of excellent cuisine at a traditional restaurant. It was a fun afternoon with excellent food and company. In March, I was then in the middle of a training workshop in which the participants also surprised us with flowers in honour of International Women’s Day (click the link to see what happens in Vietnam); I was so busy I didn’t even realise what day it was and I was certainly not expecting another celebration.

I observed that Vietnam, even in that provincial area, was on its way to achieving gender equality at least in the home. On that second occasion the men explained how they shared the cooking, looked after the children and helped with the household chores like washing and cleaning—and the consequences if they didn’t. Vietnamese are extremely industrious (if they were the size of China, China would be looking over its own shoulder with great concern), so it shouldn’t have been too surprising to learn that the same culture prevailed in the home. I’ve no doubt that this industriousness and the sharing of the household burden are fundamental keys to Vietnam’s development success. A nation simply can’t develop when 50% of its population are given special treatment and the other 50% have to shoulder the burden of work inside and outside the house and are not given equal opportunity academically or professionally.

Ghanaians say “Wishes are not horses”. It essentially means that wishful thinking gets you nowhere. Nevertheless, I’m going to make a wish.

I wish that Ghanaian women were treated as well as their Vietnamese counterparts in the home, if not the work place too. Better still, I wish that Vietnamese and Ghanaian women were treated as well as, say, their Swedish counterparts.

I wish every woman and man on earth, but particularly Ghanaian women, could read Wangari Maathai’s “Unbowed”.

I often make silly lists of Top 10 this and that, but if someone asked me to name one book that everyone should read (or have read to them), Unbowed is it. If you never read again, read Unbowed.

I knew I was on to a good thing when two of my favourite authors had given front and back cover endorsements for the book: Bill Clinton (the former President), whose “My Life” is one of my favourite autobiographies, and Alexandra Fuller who wrote “Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight”. You should add both of these to your “to read” lists too. Clinton’s is an epic masterpiece of autobiographical writing that takes you on a remarkable journey of which US politics is just a part. Fuller drops you in the front row of racist, pre- and post-colonial, southern Africa on a journey that unashamedly forces you to experience that past from her unique, child-voice point-of-view.

But back to Maathai.

Wangari Maathai must be the greatest living inspiration for African women today. Ghanaian women, who are in a better position to speak out for oppressed women across Africa and, importantly, within Ghana itself, ought to “take a leaf” (no pun intended) from her life, her work, her determination and courage.

Indeed, where is Ghana’s Wangari Maathai? Does such a woman exist? Is she quietly working behind the scenes, yet to come to the media’s attention?

In a country in which it is exceedingly less threatening to speak one’s mind than anywhere else in Africa aside from (perhaps) Botswana, where are women taking action against unequal practices in the home, in the public sphere, and with environmental issues?

Where is the movement of women encompassing all women across Ghana, urban and rural?

Looking around me here in the Upper East Region, where conditions are harsh, hot, unforgiving and designed to make life as difficult as possible, and women toil in the home and fields for virtually nothing—certainly not property rights when their husband dies, and not for money while they’re living—why is there not a greater call for change?

While I think Gifty Anti does a great job on GTV hosting a program that discusses women’s issues, in particular, with a panel or women and men each week, it only goes so far.

Maathai is well known for winning the Nobel Peace prize in 2004 and for her Greenbelt Movement which, since 1977, has planted more than 40 million trees across Africa. 

But this is half the story. She transformed not just the geographical landscape, but the human landscape in Kenya, too. Her will and her network prevented or remedied human rights abuses, corrupt practices, destructive environmental practices, and conflict across Kenya—in the face of death threats, abuse, harassment and much more. Every struggling nation needs their Maathai. If they don’t have one, they can take inspiration from Africa’s Maathai.

The planet is going to the dogs. Ghana is certainly not helping. Deforestation is a terrible problem in this country. According to Oxfam, only 25% of Ghana’s total original tropical rainforest remains. When I visited Wli in 2005 the mountains had some forest cover, yet logging was taking place one metre outside the “protected area”. When I visited in 2007 I woke to the sound of chainsaws in the forest nearby. All day: chainsaws. Chainsaws for the next five days. The mountains, while majestic in form, looked more like something out of Lord of the Rings—Saruman’s burning, not the Ents—than what I experienced two years earlier. Does Ghana want to become another Burkina Faso or Mali? An extension of the Sahara Desert?

Timber is Ghana’s third largest export after cocoa and minerals. Timber is also cleared for planting cash crops. The Government apparently banned exports of raw logs, but what about slightly processed logs? And whose needs are being catered for in the income generated from this business? 16% of the land cover has been set aside for forest and nature reserves. That means, and 9% of forests are still open for logging. These were Oxfam statistics. According to Stephen Yeboah on, the BBC estimates that Ghana has lost 90% of forest cover since independence in 1957. Either way, Ghana is on the fast-track to desertification.

This is not a criticism of Ghana as a country, but rather an observation of what feels like many missed opportunities. In a country where one can speak fairly freely, why is Ghana not leading the way for change for women in Africa? And who is going to speak up for the environment? If one woman caught in an oppressive regime can speak up, why don’t women speak out more in Ghana? Or am I being naïve? Or has complacency set in?

Or is the “PhD” mentality too overwhelming? That is, the “pull him down” thinking that prevails in Ghana that one should only reach a certain “status” before one is "pulled back down to earth where one belongs"? Why should one not reach greatness? Who are you not to achieve greatness, to stand up for other less fortunate people, and to protect your children’s natural assets?

Incidentally, the same mentality is alive and well in Australia, particularly for women, so I understand. It’s called the “Tall Poppy Syndrome”. A poppy is a type of flower that grows on a long stem with a pretty, bright flower on top. The saying goes that if you become too much of a “tall poppy”, someone will “cut you down” to “where you belong”. When an Australian at home, but especially living abroad, achieves some level of success, they’ll often be criticized by the Australian media. Various actors, writers and activists living abroad have experienced this. Female politicians still suffer from this, as do academics and other professionals.

None of us should repress our talents, skills, aspirations or our rights just because society deems it or someone else says so. Society is not a piece of granite; society is fluid like the water that falls in Wli. Even if you threw a stone into the pool beneath the hurtling falls, the ripples would be felt. And the “someone else’s” are simply mortals who will one day turn to dust.

In a country that’s already struggling to meet its citizen’s basic needs, the solution for societal and environmental change, it seems to me, is an alliance of strength and courage. Women, I’ve observed especially in rural Ghana, are nothing if not strong and courageous. And, like in Maathai’s story, it only takes one strong woman to speak out and take action. Authenticity and passion are obvious when you experience these traits. As such, Maathai has the support of wise and intelligent men these days both within and outside Kenya, as well as her women sisters.

There’s a saying that one doesn’t regret what one did, but what one didn’t do.

If you’re not sure what to do next, read Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed. It’s for sale in the Silverbird book shop in Accra Mall for GHC 17.90. Share it with your friends and read it to them if they can’t read. Once you’ve read it, pass it one and the rest will follow.

Feel free to add your thoughts and ideas here and thank you for reading.

And, most of all, thank you to Wangari Maathai for the inspiration and the ideas, now and in future.

The photo at the top is from the International Women's Day site. The image of the book cover here is from elycefeliz at Flickr. The image of logs cut in Ghana is from acameronhuff at Flickr .The image of Wangari Maathai is from holisticgeek at Flickr.

Download a free sample of the Insider's Guide to Ghana see inside the guide before buying.

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