Unbowed, One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai

WangariWangari Maathai was an exceptionally hard working, charismatic, altruist, who came from humble rural beginnings, toiling the land barehanded from a young age to become one of a group of young Africans identified as part of the “Kennedy Airlift”, provided the opportunity to gain bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the US, then completing a PhD in her native Kenya and using her education to work for the betterment of her country and people in terms of sustainable environmental practices social justice.

In addition to a senior role as a scientist and researcher at a university in Nairobi, needing to do something practical and far-reaching, she founded the sustainable tree planting initiative, The Green Belt Movement and would go on to become a responsible and practically minded activist, working to protect the natural resources and people of Kenya, through her knowledge of where to apply pressure, through her strong international network and above all the high regard in which she was esteemed by many, though sadly, that didn’t include the government of Kenya, who over many, many years continued to block her, plant obstacles in her way, arrest her and make it very difficult for her to continue in her role as an academic and to run her own business.

Wangari Maathai possessed a spirit that refused to lie down, with every setback, she gathered herself and whatever limited resources she still had, and at times this was nearly nothing and always looked towards the one step she could take, that first step towards a solution.

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Wangari Maathai, Tree Hugger Extraordinaire!

Planting a tree was both symbolic and life-sustaining. As more and more of Kenya’s forest was being deforested, underground water sources were drying up, land that had been planted with indigenous trees was being replaced with cash crops like tea and coffee, stripping the soil of nutrients and occupying land previously used to produce traditional foods for people to eat. As a consequence women began to feed their families more processed foods, requiring less energy to produce, less firewood and increasing the incidence of malnutrition.

“While I was in the rural areas outside Nairobi, I noticed that the rivers would rush down hillsides and along paths and roads when it rained, and that they would be muddy with silt. This was very different from when I was growing up. “That is soil erosion,” I remember thinking to myself. “We must do something about that.” I also observed that the cows were so skinny that I could count their ribs. There was little grass or other fodder for them to eat where they grazed, and during the dry season much of the grass lacked nutrients.”

And she took people with her, she made them part of the solution. To grow The Green Belt Movement required a large network of people to plant trees and to source and nurture seedlings. She went to the women, women like herself who grew up with their hands in the earth, she empowered them to create nurseries in their villages and tend the small trees and keep planting.

“Although the leadership of the NCWK (National Council of Women of Kenya) was generally elite and urban,  we were concerned with the  social and economic status of the majority of our members, who were poor, rural women. We worried about  their access to clean water,  and firewood,  how they would feed their children,  pay their school fees,  and afford clothing, and we wondered what we could do to ease their burdens. We had a choice: we could either sit in an ivory tower wondering how so many people could be so poor and not be working to change their situation, or we could  try to help them escape the vicious cycle they found themselves in. This was not a remote problem for us. The rural areas were where our mothers and sisters still lived. We owed it to them to do all we could.”

Tumutumu Hills nursery

Tumutumu Hills nursery

These women were already farmers, they knew how to nurture beans, maize and millet seeds, and Wangari and her team reminded them, they didn’t need a diploma to plant a tree. All they needed was their “women-sense”. These women succeeded, they showed other women what to do and became known as their “foresters without diplomas”. At every stage they looked to see if they could improve the way they did things and to overcome any obstacles the women encountered. It was a huge and sustainable success.

Unfortunately, the government for much of the 80’s and 90’s was against her, almost as if it were a personal affront, to witness a woman speak out and lead and inspire others to stand up to authority; Wangari Maathai was an advocate for proper governance and management of public resources and as soon as she heard about abuses of powers that threatened to remove public rights, she moved her supporters to action.

Through perseverance she won many battles, to save the last big public park in the middle of Nairobi, Uhuru Park from urban development, preventing Karura Forest from being given to friends and political supporters of politicians, the release of political prisoners and even the lobbying of the World Bank to forgive Kenya’s national debt which had escalated out of control. due to interest payments, despite the original loan amounts having been repaid .

“When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.”

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango,  Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

« Maathai and Obama in Nairobi » Source: Fredrick Onyango, Nairobi, Kenya Wikipedia

Unbowed, One Woman’s Story, is an astonishing and important recollection of the life and work of Wangari Maathai. She applied herself to everything she did with vigour and heart, the opportunity to be educated, something that continues to be lobbied for so many girls in third world countries, was a major turning point and became the first of many open doorways she walked through and made the most of, not for own benefit, but always for the good of all.

It seems almost like a utopian fantasy, to imagine what the world could be like, if more women were given the opportunity to gain the necessary knowledge that could allow them to facilitate solutions to village and country problems, that allowed them to live sustainably and not in fear or poverty without understanding why. Wangari Maathai knew and practised that one person can’t change everything, it is through showing and empowering others that change happens.

She was an amazing, inspirational and practical woman, who responded to the call for help on many significant issues that would benefit all Kenyan’s and was an example to the world, rightfully acknowledged and awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 2004. Sadly she passed away in 2011 from ovarian cancer.

“Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.”

Wangari tells a wonderful story of how the hummingbird responds to a forest fire, in a delightful metaphor that describes exactly her attitude to life and the many challenges that surround us. It has been made into a 2 minute animated film, Dirt, narrated by Wangari Maathai and is a wonderful introduction to her faithful, persevering spirit. A wonderful short film and one of my Top Reads for 2015.

I will be the hummingbird…

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

cider with rosieA nostalgic memoir of early boyhood in a Cotswold village, recalling memories from the age of 3-years-old, surrounded by older sisters and siblings, the father having long abandoned the family household, leaving the housekeeper who had become his wife, to raise the children of his first marriage and the four he had with her.

Rather than a tale of struggle and poverty that we might expect given the circumstance of being raised in a large single parent family, in Laurie Lee’s hands, family life is narrated as a bundle of daily adventures and anecdotes that celebrate village life, sibling love, old lady madness and an attitude of making the most of it.

Born in 1914,and writing this memoir in 1959, Lee’s style shares what he saw looking out at his view of the world, rather than looking within, it is a celebration of the time and a tribute to those he loved, respected, feared and was in awe of around him – including young Rosie, who makes the briefest of appearances luring him into the haystack, a significant turning point in his life no less.

Bank Cottages, the Family Home

Bank Cottages, the Family Home

It is unique to read an author recalling tales of his relatives and sparing a thought for their sensitivity to what he is about to make public, something that today might be glimpsed in the acknowledgements, but rarely in the text, where the current trend is to hold nothing back and share all.

“On my Mother’s side there were these five more uncles: squat, hard-hitting, heavy-drinking heroes whom we loved and who were kings of our youth. For the affection we bore them and the pride we took in them, I hope they’ll not be displeased by what follows.”

This reluctance to spill all, means that the one thing that modern readers are no doubt curious about, the absent father and Laurie Lee’s thoughts about him, rarely get a mention.

“The three or four years Mother spent with my father she fed on for the rest of her life. Her happiness at that time was something she guarded as though it must ensure his eventual return. She would talk about it almost in awe, not that it had ceased but that it had happened at all.”

Acceptance or denial, they all just get on with living, surviving, getting an education and taking care of each other. Certainly they are always entertained, if not by each other, then by the two eccentric Grandmother figures who live within the same building complex and whose mutual hatred for each other seems to be the thing that sustains their life force.

“For several more years the lives of the two old ladies continued to revolve around each other. Like cold twin stars, linked but divided, they survived by a mutual balance. Both of them reached back similarly in time, shared the same modes and habits, the same sense of feudal order, the same rampaging terrible God. They were far more alike than unalike, and could not abide each other.”

Slad ValleyLee paints a picture of village life that is vivid and alive with character and memory as if it happened today without compromising respect for any of the inhabitants; even at their most villainous, he narrates their stories with compassion and mild regret.

His narrative captures the passing of time, the slow encroachment of city life and innovation that will ultimately kill that old village way of life that encapsulated them all, from the Squire down to the struggling newborn. He does so by sharing the stories and anecdotes of others seen through his eyes, rather than turning his gaze inward.

“The last days of my childhood were also the last days of the village. I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life…Myself, my family, my generation, were born in a world of silence; a world of hard work and necessary patience, of backs bent to the ground, hands massaging the crops, of waiting on weather and growth; of villages like ships in the empty landscapes and the long walking distances between them; of white narrow roads, rutted by hooves and cartwheels, innocent of oil or petrol, down which people passed rarely, and almost never for pleasure, and the horse was the fastest thing moving. Man and horse were all the power we had – abetted by levers and pulleys.”

A wonderful narrative of a not so distant time, lost forever.

"LaurieLeeHeadstone" by Jongleur100 - Source: Wikipedia

“LaurieLeeHeadstone” by Jongleur100 – Source: Wikipedia

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via Netgalley.

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson was unknown to me, though she is a prolific writer, having already published 30 books and been shortlisted this year for the Hans Christian Andersen Award for her lasting contribution to children’s literature.

Brown Girl DreamingI saw it mentioned on twitter, as it recently won a National Book award in the US and it has the most beautiful, striking cover and when I read that it is a memoir of the author’s childhood, written in free verse, I just knew I had to read it. And I’m not the only one, of the seventeen books US President, Barack Obama bought on a recent book buying spree with his two daughters, this book was sitting on the top of the pile.

Brown Girl Dreaming is an easy reading collection of anecdotes in free verse, that tell of Woodson’s childhood growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s in Greenville, South Carolina and Brooklyn , New York, not so much focused on herself, she paints a picture with words of all those around her, their inclinations and beliefs, the daily rituals that made up the ambiance within which she spent her early years.

She has something of both the North and South in her, moving comfortably between the two and she wouldn’t have it any other way. She collects aspects of her childhood that have stayed with her and that shaped who she is today and she discovers old stories that fill out her experience and deepen her roots and sense of belonging.

“When we ask our mother how long we’ll be here,

sometimes she says for a while and sometimes

she tells us not to ask anymore

because she doesn’t know how long we’ll stay

in the house where she grew up

on the land she’s always known.”

After her mother leaves her husband and Ohio behind, bringing three small children to her own childhood home, the children are drawn into their Grandmother’s ways, including regular attendance at the Kingdom Hall, where they become part of a Jehovah Witnesses community, which has a significant impact on their upbringing and keeps them out of trouble, though it also has its consequences and is something the author will eventually leave behind.

“Everyone else

has gone away.

And now coming back home

isn’t really coming back home

at all.”

Jacqueline, named after her father who wanted her to be Jack, observes the individual brilliance of each of her siblings, she acknowledges their talent and discovers her own, a love of words and despite the challenges they confront her with, she never loses sight of her dream to be a writer and to catch those words that sometimes eluded her on the page.

“I am not gifted. When I read, the words twist

Twirl across the page.

When they settle, it is too late.

The class has already moved on.

I want to catch words one day. I want to hold them

Then blow gently,

Watch them float

Right out of my hands”

I couldn’t help but recall the Cuban writer Margarita Engle’s exceptional The Wild Book, not just because it too is a brilliant volume of prose poetry written for both a young and adult audience, but because its subject also includes a child with a love and fear of words.

Jacqueline WoodsonBrown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful book and a compassionate collection of childhood, a celebration of all the author’s family and n its writing, it enabled her to reconnect with many of those whom she hadn’t seen for years and in doing so, to learn of and preserve more of the family’s stories that had been within the family for generations.

Her poems are like a giant tapestry and the members of her family, her neighbourhood and friends make up the complex colours and patterns, infused with story, emotion, excitement and foreboding, the fabric of her childhood.

By the time you get to the end, you feel like you know them all and to complete the experience the author has shared her collection of black and white family photos.

H is for Hawk, Winner of Samuel Johnson Prize, Costa Prize

H is for Hawk and for Helen Macdonald, and her Hibernation from Humanity in coping with her father’s untimely death and her own pending transition, as her Cambridge University fellowship is coming to an end and she must soon leave the comfortable country cottage that came with it.

H is for HawkResponding to an instinctive need to escape reality she obtains a goshawk, retreats into her cottage, unplugs her telephone and focuses on training the raptor at the same time observing her own behaviour which begins to resemble the bird’s.

“The kind of madness I had was different. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world. The problem was that it had nothing to work with. There was no partner, no children, no home. No nine-to-five job either. So it grabbed anything it could. It was desperate, and it read off the world wrong.”

In all her years as a falconer, she had never wanted to fly a goshawk, she feared them and comes to realise she has taken on the attitudes of those who glorified falcons, bird of nobility, of aristocracy, men of privilege, those who mocked the humble goshawk. But times and perceptions had changed, and getting to know and train a goshawk was the challenge she set for herself.

“Goshawks were ruffians: murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign.”

She waits on a Scottish pier for the Belfast ferry, which is transporting a man and his goshawk, soon enough she will become the owner of the bird she names Mabel.

The days pass and her focus must be with Mabel, she spurns human company, spending her free time in the company of T.H White, rereading The Goshawk, a book she had read as a child when her passion for birds was in its formative stages. White wrote about his failed attempt to train a goshawk, his account wrapped up in childhood fears and inclinations. Helen Macdonald reads around the life and writings of this man in order to understand him, as if to explain to her childhood self, why he did what he did.

“I understood why people considered it a masterpiece. For White made falconry a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The Old Man and the Sea, The Goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest: salvation as a stake to be won in a contest against God.”

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

Mable and Helen playing with a paper telescope
Photo by Christina McLeish @_Xtin_

It is a fascinating and insightful read as the author shares her commitment to an obsessive need to tame the hawk and exposes her vulnerability in coping with all that she wishes to avoid. Writing about the training of a goshawk is also a way of avoiding talking about herself. We must read outside the narrative of the book to know more about Helen’s previous experience and expertise with hawks, we can tell she is no amateur, however she avoids looking back or enlightening the reader too much about her past, we are kept very much in the present, as unnerved as she is by her descent into hawk-like behaviours and instincts.

I love nature writing that stimulates the imagination, that offers more than just an observation of what the author sees, but describes the environment and what an observer brings to it, one that provokes us to think about our own relationship to birds, animals and nature. Helen Macdonald comes to her goshawk challenge with fixed ideas about the need to escape all, she sets herself up like a scientific hypothesis, begins her transformation into a hawk like creature and then slowly deconstructs it, coming back to the realisation of her own humanity.

“Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Falconry_sport_of_kings_(1920)

Falconry, the sport of Kings Source: wikipedia

She reminds us of the place and symbolism of falconry within humanity, its association with the hunt, with death, war, power and subservience.

It is unique in being a woman’s perspective within a heritage that has long been the domain of men, nobility, landowners, gentry, medieval lords.

It is refreshingly alive, honest and knowledgeable, exhibiting how our weaknesses and our strengths advance and recede in unison as naturally as the ebb and flow of tides.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Good Morning, Mr Mandela by Zelda la Grange #Memoir #Giveaway

Good Morning

Thanks to the publisher Viking, Penguin-Random House, one lucky US reader can win a copy of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr. Mandela, an in-depth account of her 20-year dedication to her employer Nelson Mandela.

Win a Copy!

To enter the draw, leave a message below or on the book review post here. Only US readers with a valid postal address are able to enter sorry. Entries close Sunday 3 August.

An Additional Entry!

Share one of your favorite quotes from Nelson Mandela to gain an additional entry.

You can find a list of quotes here on Goodreads.

Bonne Chance!

 

Good Morning, Mr Mandela

Mandela Day

Today, 18 July is Nelson Mandela Day, it was the date of his birthday and the day he married his wife Graça Machel. I discovered this yesterday as I was nearing the end of Zelda la Grange’s memoir Good Morning, Mr Mandela as she helped with the plan to advocate to the UN to try to make 18 July International Nelson Mandela Day, after receiving a letter of congratulations from Bono for Mandela’s ninetieth birthday celebrations held in Hyde Park, London. He wrote:

“Happy Birthday Madiba. I am working to make July 18th a public holiday in every country that acknowledges that the struggle of Nelson Mandela is not over until every individual who yearns for freedom has the chance to grasp it. I believe your birthday should be an occasion around the globe to honour those who still struggle.” Bono, U2

Good MorningWhen I saw this memoir was due for release I didn’t know anything about Zelda la Grange, but after reading this interview by John Carlin in The Guardian from 2008, I decided to find out more and finished reading it today.

Zelda la Grange was born in 1970 in East Johannesburg, South Africa to a white Afrikaans family. Her father worked in construction and her mother was a teacher. The family wasn’t rich, but being white, they enjoyed the privileges of their race, benefiting from the apartheid regime through access to health, education and a strong sense of entitlement. It wasn’t something she ever thought about, it was the way they lived, they accepted it and had little knowledge of how these policies affected black and coloured people. They were racist.

“As a child it is easy to follow when you grow up in an environment that is safe. Perhaps if I had been oppressed, didn’t have access to a decent school, a proper house, electricity and water, I would have asked different questions, and my brain would have developed into being more inquisitive about injustice at an early age.”

Not knowing what she wanted to do with her life, she enrolled in a course to become an Executive Secretary. When Mandela was voted President she was working in a government Human Resources Department and heard there was a job opening in the administrative department of the President’s office.

It was to be the beginning of a twenty-year career working for Nelson Mandela, first in his capacity as President and then when he left the government, she would be the one person he chose to take with him, to maintain in his employ for life.

Zelda la Grange served Nelson Mandela for around 20 years and you could say she gave her life to him as she had little personal existence outside her working life, so loyal was she to the man who handpicked her to be that loyal employee. Ever the strategist, he chose a woman whose skills complimented his own, she compensated for his weakness and allowed him to continue to focus on his strengths by taking care of all the things that needed to go on behind the scenes to ensure safe passage and no surprises. She was a perfectionist, though she doesn’t admit that in the book, working often through the night than have anything go wrong and was completely obsessed with every little detail.

Zelda owns up in the opening pages that this book is her story and so doesn’t contain great political insights into South Africa or its policies, nor does she ever break the trust she had with Nelson Mandela and say anything he wouldn’t have approved of. One gets the impression that she could have said so much more and perhaps even did, but any excesses have been cut from the first draft and what we read here is a clean, if somewhat lacking version of the events of those twenty years they worked together.

The book reads like a diary of events, which can become tedious, especially as the language is quite prosaic, just as the job must have been, however she is clearly passionate and dedicated to serving the man she referred to as Khulu or Grandfather and he referred to her as Zeldini. Their relationship was extremely close, but always with a respectful and appropriate distance, as was inherent in both their natures.

It is an incredible record of those years and the many voyages they made, people met and funds raised for various humanitarian projects they launched, even if we miss the perspective of the man himself.  In telling her story, she pays tribute to her boss and has created a record of her great respect and need to ensure that all those associated with him, from friends to celebrities to politicians were adequately taken care of. She never stoops to gossip, takes care not to say anything negative about the family, although you can sense the unspoken tension underneath, after all they did bar her from the funeral activities and if it wasn’t for the generosity of Mandela’s wife, Mrs Machel, she would not have attended at all.

An interesting account and makes me even more curious to read Mandela’s own words and gain an insight into what was going on inside his mind during these years.

Today's Google Doodle

Today’s Google Doodle

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

Scattered Dreams

On March 4th I sent an email to Karin Crilly about a competition being run on The Good Life France. I saw this competition mentioned on twitter  @lifefrance and thought of Karin as I knew she was writing a memoir about her year in Aix-en-Provence and I thought it would be a good idea for her to send something out into the world.

The Good Life France is an independent online magazine that celebrates life in France and attracts a number of writers and contributors who write on a wide range of subjects, keeping visitors and residents informed about France and all things French. The competition was to celebrate the 2nd anniversary since their inception and they invited contributions of work up to 1000 words on France or French related.

Good Life

Karin replied and said she would be very interested in entering the competition and asked if I would like to read the extract she had chosen, from the first chapter of her book.

Unbeknown to us both at the time, it was the beginning of the two of us working together. I read her work, made some suggestions and she polished her already excellent prose into a shape resembling 1000 words of an evocative experience in Paris that did indeed wow the judges, moving some of them to tears yet uplifting them at the same time.

Earlier this week, to our great joy, we learned that Karin had won the competition, ahead of more than 100 other entries and her story Scattered Dreams in Paris has now been published on The Good Life France.

You can read the story here by clicking on the title. Watch this space for news of the book when it comes out:

Winner of 2014 Writing Competition The Good Life France!

Scattered Dreams in Paris by Karin Crilly

CIMG2976

 

Congratulations Karin and  Bonne Continuation!