BAR Book Forum: Grace A. Musila’s Book, “Wangari Maathai's Registers of Freedom”
Maathai’s approach to environmental conservation centers poor rural communities, especially women, and their need for fuel, fodder and income
“Gender logics that frame women as moral boundary markets for cultural nationalism restrict the possible range of identities women can embody.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Grace A. Musila. Dr. Musila is an associate professor at the Department of African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Her book is Wangari Maathai's Registers of Freedom.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Grace Musila: My book is a biographical portrait of the scholar, environmental activist, human rights campaigner and Nobel Prize laureate, Wangari Muta Maathai. Maathai’s work and thought was held together by a deep concern about the fate of women in a world that disregards their voices and thoughts, while simultaneously placing them at the coal-face of the devastating effects of poverty, colonial violence, environmental degradation and authoritarian cultures. My book focuses on the ways in which Maathai’s life, activism and thought embodied different registers of freedom— in the full meaning of the term: register as bearing witness, recording, acknowledging, and responding to suppressions of well-being— offers readers an example of intersectional thought and praxis, in the ways Maathai retained an attentive eye on the symbiotic relationship between ideas and activist practice. Her life— born in 1940, and passing on in 2011— overlaps with Kenyan, and to an extent African histories, in productive ways, that are rich in insights into the textures of repression, aspirations to freedom, as well as the betrayals of such freedom dreams, across a period spanning from British colonial Kenya, all the way across three regimes in Kenyan history; and their accompanying interactions with global capital. At the same time, her life also traces a distinct trajectory of class formation in colonial and post-colonial Kenya; and the options and hurdles that frame women’s lives.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Maathai’s life story is generative for me as a student of gender, Africa and the politics of knowledge production, because it blends together an unusual mix of formal education in biological sciences, intertwined with activist practice, both of which are anchored in deep investment in Gikuyu epistemology. Maathai’s life and thought demonstrates an activist and scholarly practice that is about pragmatic navigation of our multiple epistemic genealogies, embracing and repurposing what we need and setting aside that which no longer serves our best interests. I hope readers will find Maathai’s demonstration of fluid linkages between intellectual thought, activist mobilization and hands-on action inspiring. Maathai considered the interweaving of critical thought and activist practice indispensable to the forms of world-making necessary for the pursuit of freedom and justice for vulnerable communities. Through her work with the Green Belt Movement, Maathai worked closely with rural, largely illiterate women, to address the harsh effects of environmental degradation and political repression on their lives; while drawing on her own scientific training and packaging both scientific principles and political ideas in accessible terms that resonated with these women’s lives and enabled them to make transformative changes while increasing their understanding of civic freedoms, the role of colonialism, capital and patriarchy in producing their current precarity; and the possibility of crafting different futures for themselves.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
In Kenya, and indeed, across much of Africa, there is a long history of criminalization of poor black communities as a threat to environmental conservation; coupled with the belief that environmental conservation is impossible to achieve while prioritizing the needs and livelihoods of these communities. By tracking Maathai’s work and thought, my book demonstrates that, to the contrary, British colonial misadventures in Kenya were environmentally disastrous, through replacement of indigenous vegetation with fast-growing foreign tree species for timber; largescale hunting, plantation farming and displacement of local populations. My book dismantles the notion that conservation necessitates exclusion of poor rural communities and their needs. Maathai’s approach to environmental conservation centers poor rural communities, especially women, and their need for fuel, fodder and income; while successfully restoring forests and rejuvenating the soil; an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream conservation industry across Africa, which is an offshoot of masculinist colonial conservation practices aligned with forced displacement of indigenous communities, land alienation and the leisure consumption needs of an affluent, primarily Euro-American white clientele.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
My work draws inspiration from a large range of thinkers, artists and activists whose work embodies an unequivocal commitment to ideas that generate beauty — in the most capacious sense of the term — and enlarge the horizons of the possible for marginalized people. In a world and time where people’s humanity and access to dignity is honored or assigned proportionate to their socio-economic location, I draw inspiration from thinkers, artists and activists who linger with marginalized communities; and invest time, thought and imagination in saluting their humanity and crafting other modes of being, in registers that celebrate these communities’ beauty and depth. These thinkers and cultural workers include Zoe Wicomb, Toni Morrison, Yvonne Vera, Gabeba Baderoon, Pumla Dineo Gqola, Keguro Macharia, Earl Lovelace, Angela Davis, Christina Sharpe, Tejumola Olaniyan, Jose Eduardo Agualusa, Atieno Odhiambo, Francis Nyamnjoh, Elif Shafak, Kei Miller and a host of others.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
My book’s fine-grained exploration of how Maathai navigated the complexities of her private life as well as the struggles and victories of her public life invites us to pause and think about the freedom dreams of women and other vulnerable communities at different points in history; and the strategies they mobilized to stage their various refusals of systems and agents that sought to minimize the scope of their humanity. An insight in this regard, is the implications of professional and educational achievements for Black women, at a time when women were largely absent in the higher levels of academia and public life; which compelled women like Maathai to be pragmatic about how they navigate the structural limitations that make it difficult to fully embody radical feminist practice. In these contexts, gender logics that frame women as moral boundary markers for cultural nationalism restrict the possible range of identities women can embody, while freeing up men to indulge their adventurous fancies at will, without the burden of being cultural barometers. In her case, early in her marriage, Maathai found herself having to perform particular registers of ‘proper African femininity’ in order not to jeopardise her husband’s political ambitions by seeming ‘too westernized.’ In the end, her marriage ended, despite her best efforts. Maathai further demonstrates the value of imagination and pragmatism in navigating terrains that make outright radical action possible, through the example of her handling of her ex-husband’s insistence that she drops his surname once they divorced. Maathai noted the gap between Gikuyu pronunciation of her husband’s name as Maathai and English orthography as Mathai; and decided to add the extra a to the name, renaming herself, Maathai. This imaginative response enabled her to counter her husband’s bullying demand that she drop his name, while allowing her to craft a new identity for herself that was not entirely one of surrendering to her ex-husband’s wishes.
Roberto Sirvent is Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA, and an Affiliate Scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, where he directs the Race, Bioethics, and Public Health Project. He is co-author, with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong, of the book, American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: A People’s History of Fake News—From the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror.
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