Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011): Tree planter, activist, visionary and mother

Wangari Muta Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011)

“We are very fond of blaming the poor for destroying the environment. But often it is the powerful, including governments, that are responsible.”

That was a typical remark by Wangari Muta Maathai, the Kenyan environmental and political activist who has just died.

In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organisation focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights.

In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

The Green Belt Movement in a profile about their founder counted the many roles she played: environmentalist; scientist; parliamentarian; founder of the Green Belt Movement; advocate for social justice, human rights, and democracy; elder; and Nobel Peace Laureate.

“”It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in,” Wangari Maathai kept saying.

As a tribute, I have assembled a few links to interesting online videos featuring her.

Taking Root, a long format documentary, tells the dramatic story of Wangari Maathai whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy—a movement for which this charismatic woman became an iconic inspiration.

TAKING ROOT: The Vision of Wangari Maathai Trailer on PBS YouTube channel:

Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement, short film by StridesinDevelopment:

Riz Khan’s One on One: Wangari Maathai: Part 1
Interview with Al Jazeera English first broadcast on 19 Jan 2008

“I will be a hummingbird” – Wangari Maathai

Two more memorable quotes from her to inspire us all:

“I have always believed that, no matter how dark the cloud, there is always a thin, silver lining, and that is what we must look for.”

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”

‘Thank you for warming the planet (good for business)’ — Africa’s malaria mosquitoes

Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei: Voice of Hope

Malaria still claims over a million lives every year, most of them in Africa. This is not simply a public health statistic for Nelly Damaris Chepkoskei – she lost a daughter to the ancient scourge that continues to outsmart human attempts to control it.

“It was very sad when my daughter died of malaria at the age of four,” she recalls. What makes it especially tragic is the fact that malaria is a new arrival in her area.

Nelly, 51, is a farmer living in Kenya’s Kericho District. Located high in the mountains, Kericho’s cold weather has kept mosquitoes at bay for centuries. But not any longer: global warming has raised the area’s average temperature, and mosquitoes have appeared in recent years, bringing malaria with them.

“I had never seen a mosquito until I was 20 years old. But now they are everywhere – people are even dying of malaria, something that was virtually unheard of 20 or 30 years ago,” Nelly told the 7th Greenaccord International Media Forum on the Protection of Nature, being held in Viterbo, Italy, 25 – 29 November 2009.

The theme this year is ‘Climate is changing: stories, facts and people’. Nelly Chepkoskei is one of 10 Climate Witnesses who travelled to the historic city from far corners of the world to share their stories of ground level changes induced by climate change.

Climate Witness is a global programme by WWF International to enable grassroots people to share their story of how climate change affects their lives and what they are doing to maintain a clean and healthy environment. All Climate Witness stories have been authenticated by independent scientists.

Married with five children, Nelly grows maize and tea, and keeps a few cows – the pride and joy of Kenyan farmers. Lacking faith in politicians and government, she is working with women in her community to pursue their own development.

Life was never easy, but climate change is making it even harder.

“Rainfall patterns have changed drastically in recent decades,” she says. “In the Kericho district, we used to have rain throughout the year. I remember clearly that my family celebrated Christmas when it was raining heavily. But today, Christmas is usually dry.”

Unlike 20 years ago, the dry season is now hotter, drying up all the grass. In the past, the grass would remain green throughout the year.

“This means there isn’t enough fodder for my cows, leading to a drop in milk production and my income,” she explains. “The soils are also left bare during the dry season, which means more erosion when rains come in.”

With higher temperatures, more pests have turned up to damage crops. This prompts farmers to use more pesticides, increasing production costs and polluting the environment with hazardous chemicals.

Nelly turned out to be the most outspoken Climate Witness in Viterbo. In a frank exchange with an audience of 130 journalists, activists and scientists drawn from 55 countries, she exclaimed: “Don’t talk to politicians – they are the same everywhere! I can’t understand why journalists always follow politicians and are so keen to talk to them!”

She continued: “There is so many good things happening in Africa, but we don’t see it reported in the local and international media. You only hear about fighting, famine and corruption. So we continue to be seen and known as the Dark Continent.”

In her view, what Africa needs more than anything else is education. She firmly believes that higher levels of literacy and education would reduce the incidence of conflict and plunder.

Nelly herself is a high school drop out, and places a very high value on education to empower all Africans, especially women.

“There is a big gap between Kenyan intellectuals and the ordinary people. Knowledge is not where and how it is needed,” she says.

I asked her what she thought of foreign aid to Kenya and rest of Africa. This elicited a passionate and emphatic response: “If you want to spoil and corrupt Africa more, then keep giving aid to our governments. Aid money mostly ends up in the wrong hands, or buying guns to fight each other.”

She added: “We do need help, but don’t give aid to our governments. Instead, support NGOs who are better in delivering to the grassroots.”

Nelly and her network of women are digitally empowered. They refer the web to find out information on what aid and opportunities are available and then pursue them with all available means. Armed with the latest data, they lobby local and provincial governments to ensure that aid pledged from international donors reach the intended communities.

Nelly may not be Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and women’s right activist, but she admits to being a Wangaari in spirit. And having listened to the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize at a previous Greenaccord forum, I readily agree: women like Nelly are a beacon of hope not just for Africa, but to the entire Majority World.

If only the mosquitoes could spread their passion and concern for the land and people…

Read WWF report on climate change impacts in East Africa

Images courtesy Greenaccord and WWF

The XYZ Show: New horizon in political satire on African TV, but room to grow?

Anyone can do ABC; it takes effort to make it all the way to XYZ...

Anyone can do ABC; it takes a special effort to make XYZ...

Update on 1 Sep 2009: Controversy over XYZ Show: Kenyan politicians forgetting Hakuna matata?

I ended a recent blog post, News wrapped in laughter, with this thought: “There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter.

An interesting experiment in political satire on Kenyan television has just ended its first season on 9 August 2009. It’s a show called the XYZ Show, which was broadcast weekly on Kenya’s Citizen TV. Started in mid May 2009, the first season introduced Kenyan viewers to a new form of satire television, with life-sized puppets made to resemble famous persons, mostly politicians.

Gado the Creator

Gado the Creator

The XYZ Show was inspired by famous puppet satire series like the British “Spitting Image” and the French “Les Guignols de l’Info” shows. In the XYZ Show, the puppets commented on news and current events from both Kenya and overseas.

The XYZ Show was developed by a team led by Kenyan cartoonist Godfrey Mwampembwa, alias Gado. He is the most widely syndicated cartoonist in East and Central Africa. He publishes a daily cartoon in The Nation, the largest newspaper in Kenya, and his work has been published in Le Monde (France), Washington Times (US), De Standaard (Belgium) and The Japan Times.

According to its creators, the XYZ Show challenged famous figures from Kenyan high society and politics using humour and satire. It aimed to become a new forum for social and political debate, one that provides room for open discussion.

Watch XYZ Show’s first episode trailer, produced one year ago:

Says the Prince Claus Fund of the Netherlands, which supported the show’s production: “Although freedom of the press is a constitutional right in Kenya, it is difficult for many journalists to practice their profession without interference. Gado and his team hope that the XYZ Show will contribute positively to strengthening freedom of the press and increasing political and social awareness among the people of Kenya. The show provides commentary on current social and political developments and aims to use humour and artistry to reinforce freedom of speech in Kenya.”

From what I’ve been able to watch online, on the show’s YouTube channel and elsewhere, the production values are at a high standard, comparable to such shows made in Europe and East Asia. The puppets are attractive, movements convincing and the pace quick and slick.

Who pulls his strings?

Who pulls his strings?

The producers have also tried hard to make XYZ more than just a TV show. The website, in English, shows how the content is being adapted for the web (as webisodes) and mobile phones (as mobisodes). The show’s official blog takes us on to the set and shares with us the story behind the story, and introduces us to the artists and technical geniuses involved. Full marks for trying to engage the audience.

Then there is Barack Obama. Using his Kenyan connections, the show casts him (really, a puppet in his image) in a ‘supporting actor’ role. This has clearly inspired some interest in the show beyond Kenya.

So far, so good. But how does it work with the audience? The show is directed mainly at local audiences, and even if it’s presented in a mix of English and local language, it’s not something a complete outsider like myself can appreciate.

So I ‘crowd-sourced’ by asking a Kenyan reader of my blog, Marion N N, for her opinion. Marion is part of Sojourner, which her blog introduces as “a social enterprise that exists to promote the origination, production and distribution of African viewpoints through visual media. We are passionate about African film-making and seek its viable promotion globally”.

Marion wrote a comment in her blog after watching one episode a few weeks ago. She lives and works in Kenya, and her views are far more valid than my own.

Behind the screen, creators at work...

Behind the screen, creators at work...

She wrote: “My first off impression was fascination about the quality of the show in terms of animation which is very new to the local TV production scene in Kenya. Once past the fascination of the animation, I found that the content failed to hold my interest, connect with me or engage me as an audience. As a socio-political spoof show, humor ideally should be the hook that captures audience but in this case, humor comes across as mindless, illogical or simply stupid action on the screen. As if in evidence to this fact, at some point my husband in between laughter remarked ‘This show is really stupid’. I would imagine this would be a compliment to the Production becuase it provoked laughter in a viewer. However beyond that moment, it seemed only natural for us to flick over to more substantial entertainment having enjoyed that brief flight of fancy that failed to arouse an appetite for more.”

Marion also wondered what the show’s intended audience was, and highlighted the many challenges in getting the levels and balances right in doing political satire: “That politicians sometimes (nay, most times) behave ridiculously is not new or fresh. But the treatment, underlying themes, ideas communicated to audiences should be. Why do I suggest this? Because political satire by its nature speaks to an audience that is fairly mature, and exposed. To use childish humor that is poorly developed will not hold the audience’s attention. Infact at some point the content may become a tad irritating to watch. Political satire needs to be treated with a peppering of fact, wit, fresh perspective or take -out: The achievement of some underlying objective and not just mindless visual gimmicks that lead to the feeling of ‘stooping to idiocy; by audiences. This seeming insult of intelligence causes us as an audience to switch off.”

XYZ Show logoIn my own view, The XYZ Show had at least three major challenges. Doing any puppet show is hard enough, and these days the on-air competition is neither local nor fair: it comes from global entertainment corporations like MTV and their regional variations, usually with deep pockets. Doing political satire is even harder, especially if the political culture is intolerant or repressive. To get the look, feel and balances right in a country where such a show is being done locally for the first time is a formidable challenge by itself.

But I’ll let Marion have the last word. In spite of the various concerns, she feels that the XYZ Show has ‘room to grow and conquer the airwaves’. But, as she notes, “The production team have their work cut out for them in pre-production. It’s back to the drawing board and ask who is my audience? What appeals to them? How do I connect with them, define an objective for the show and its audiences? Research facts and opinions about national sentiment on issues then develop scripts and sequences…”

Read Marion’s full comment on her blog

All images used on this blog post are courtesy The XYZ Show.

News wrapped in laughter: Is this the future of current affairs journalism?

Who can follow these footsteps?

Who can follow these footsteps?

In an excellent op ed essay assessing the lasting value and meaning of Walter Cronkite to the world of journalism, Frank Rich wrote in The New York Times on 26 July 2009:

“What matters about Cronkite is that he knew when to stop being reassuring Uncle Walter and to challenge those who betrayed his audience’s trust. He had the guts to confront not only those in power but his own bosses. Given the American press’s catastrophe of our own day — its failure to unmask and often even to question the White House propaganda campaign that plunged us into Iraq — these attributes are as timely as ever.

“That’s why the past week’s debate about whether there could ever again be a father-figure anchor with Cronkite’s everyman looks and sonorous delivery is an escapist parlor game. What matters is content, not style. The real question is this: How many of those with similarly exalted perches in the news media today — and those perches, however diminished, still do exist in the multichannel digital age — will speak truth to power when the country is on the line? This journalistic responsibility cannot be outsourced to Comedy Central and Jon Stewart.”

I cannot agree more with the premise and arguments in this essay, which is well worth a careful, slow read by everyone, everywhere who cares for good journalism — either as practitioners or consumers (and in this media saturated age, don’t we all fall into one or both categories?).

At the same time, without detracting from the value of — and the crying need for — investigative, reflective and ‘serious’ journalism, I believe comedy and especially political satire play a key role today in analysing and critiquing politicians, businessmen and others whose decisions and actions impact public policy and public life.

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Anchor, anchor, burning bright...

Political satire is nothing new: it’s been around for as long as organised government. Over the centuries, it has manifested in many oral, literary or theatrical traditions, some more memorable and enduring – such as Gulliver’s Travels and Animal Farm. And for over a century, political cartoonists have been doing it with brilliant economy of words – as I have said more than once on this blog, they are among the finest social philosophers of our times.

In the age of electronic media, it’s only natural that the tradition of satire thrives on the airwaves and online. In fact, there is a rich and diverse offering of politically sensitive and/or active satire in the mainstream and online media that we can consider it a genre of its own. Some of it is so clever, authentic and appealing that we might momentarily forget that we are experiencing a work of satire.
Purists might decry this blurring of traditional demarcations between information, commentary and entertainment — but does that really matter?

When we survey the media and cultural scenes in our globalised world, we see things getting hopelessly entangled and mixed up everywhere. Nothing is quite what they seem – or claim – to be anymore. Content that is explicitly labelled as pure news and current affairs is looking more and more like entertainment. My friend Kunda Dixit, who edits the Nepali Times, says this is inevitable when the same mega corporations own both cartoon networks and news channels.

No news is good news -- for whom?

No news is good news -- for whom?

If the mainstream news organisations don’t quite live up to our expectations to gather, analyse and reflect on the current affairs of the day, we should at least be grateful that some comedians are stepping into that void. We must welcome, celebrate and wish their tribe would increase!

The rise and rise of political satire is also being chronicled and analysed. A new book tells us why we now have to take satire TV seriously — it turns out to be the bearer of the democratic spirit for the post-broadcast age. Titled Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era, the book is co-edited by Jonathan Gray, Jeffrey Jones and Ethan Thompson (NYU Press, April 2009).

Here’s the blurb introducing the book: “Satirical TV has become mandatory viewing for citizens wishing to make sense of the bizarre contemporary state of political life. Shifts in industry economics and audience tastes have re-made television comedy, once considered a wasteland of escapist humor, into what is arguably the most popular source of political critique. From fake news and pundit shows to animated sitcoms and mash-up videos, satire has become an important avenue for processing politics in informative and entertaining ways, and satire TV is now its own thriving, viable television genre. Satire TV examines what happens when comedy becomes political, and politics become funny.”

The book contains a series of original essays focus on a range of popular shows, from The Daily Show to South Park, Da Ali G Show to The Colbert Report, The Boondocks to Saturday Night Live, Lil’ Bush to Chappelle’s Show, along with Internet D.I.Y. satire and essays on British and Canadian satire. “They all offer insights into what today’s class of satire tells us about the current state of politics, of television, of citizenship, all the while suggesting what satire adds to the political realm that news and documentaries cannot.”

Let me summarise the news so far. Intentionally or otherwise, some news anchors and politicians are increasingly behaving like comedians. Meanwhile, a few professional comedians are talking serious politics and current affairs in a genre of media that is growing in popularity by the day.

Are you confused yet? Well, get used to it. This is the shape of things to come.

In such topsy-turvy times, we need more Jon Stewarts to puncture the bloated egos and images of not only elected and other public officials, but also of our larger-than-life news anchors, editors and media tycoons. I would any day have conscientious comedians doubling as social and political commentators than suffer shallow, glib newscasters trying to be entertainers. That’s what you call laughing for a good cause.

Parting thought: There is another dimension to satirising the news in immature democracies as well as in outright autocracies where media freedoms are suppressed or denied. When open dissent is akin to signing your own death warrant, and investigative journalists risk their lives on a daily basis, satire and comedy becomes an important, creative – and often the only – way to comment on matters of public interest. It’s how public-spirited journalists and their courageous publishers get around draconian laws, stifling regulations and trigger-happy goon squads. This is precisely what is happening right now in countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka, and it’s certainly no laughing matter. More about this soon.


The news as you never saw it before...

The news as you never saw it before...

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, is an American late night satirical television programme, airing on Comedy Central, a cable/satellite channel. The half-hour long show is presented as a (fake) newscast. In their own words, the Daily Show team “bring you the news like you’ve never seen it before — unburdened by objectivity, journalistic integrity or even accuracy.” It “takes a reality-based look at news, trends, pop culture, current events, politics, sports and entertainment with an alternative point of view.”

The show premiered in July 1996, and was initially hosted by Craig Kilborn. Jon Stewart took over as host in January 1999, and made it more strongly focused on politics. In each show, anchorman Jon Stewart and his team of correspondents, comment on the day’s stories, employing actual news footage, taped field pieces, in-studio guests and on-the-spot coverage of important news events.

This is what the Wikipedia says: “The program has grown in popularity since Jon Stewart took over hosting, with organizations such as the Pew Research Center claiming that it has become a primary source of news for many young people, an assertion the show’s staff have repeatedly rejected. Critics, including series co-creator Lizz Winstead, have chastised Stewart for not conducting hard-hitting enough interviews with his political guests, some of whom he may have previously lampooned in other segments; while others have criticized the show as having a liberal bias. Stewart and other Daily Show writers have responded to both criticisms by saying that they do not have any journalistic responsibility and that as comedians their only duty is to provide entertainment.”

OK, The Daily Show may not be intentionally serious journalism, anymore than mainstream news channels are intentionally funny. But a significant number of American TV viewers and TV critics, as well as media researchers, have found the analysis and commentary to be highly insightful and incisive. It has won many awards including an Emmy and Peabody Award. It’s been on the cover of Newsweek for its outstanding elections coverage and serious journalism. It’s not to be laughed off easily.

After the Last Newspaper...

After the Last Newspaper...