In 1960, a young Kenyan woman named Mary Jo arrived in the United States. She was one of about 300 students in the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ scholarship programme, and amongst her peers was a young man named Barack Hussein Obama. In 2004, the year that Obama’s son gave the keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston, his one-time fellow student won the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Kenya that Mary Jo left was under a state of emergency, and British rule; when she returned, six years later, with a Masters degree and a new name, her country was independent. Abroad, she had rediscovered her African identity, and had discarded her adopted Christian name for her birth name, Wangari.

This was a time of great hope. The imperial project had failed, and the European nations were now scrambling out of Africa. Economic growth was robust, and African commodity production was strong. There was some inspirational leadership, and much idealism amongst Wangari’s generation.

So what went wrong?

From 1960 to 2001, Korea averaged 5.8 per cent growth; for much of sub-Saharan Africa, growth was negative, and yet the population of the continent increased more than threefold. In the early 1960s, Africa made up ten per cent of the world’s poor. By 2000, it made up half.

The 1970s and 1980s devastated Africa. The collapse in international commodity prices plunged the African economies into crisis; international donors rushed in with often-reckless loans. African leaders proved deeply disillusioning, fomenting ethnic rivalry and expropriating resources. And the Cold War in Africa was “far from cold”, as Wangari Maathai puts it, pithily.

The 1990s were blighted by the Rwandan genocide, the collapse of Somalia, the descent of the Congo into a state of almost permanent crisis, and numerous other conflicts.

But this decade has been better. The South African settlement has held and, though Zimbabwe has collapsed, neighbouring Mozambique has seen peace and steady growth. Peace has also come to Angola, South Sudan and West Africa, though Darfur and Somalia still defy international attempts (albeit weak ones) at intervention or mediation.

Economic growth has been steady at six to seven per cent in many countries (prior to the recent global shock), and the staggering spread of mobile phones across the continent has brought a rich dividend: aid agencies, farmers, businesspeople and election monitors all use them to make African business and politics more efficient and transparent.

There is, in other words, hope, and Wangari Maathai is immersed in it. Indeed, ‘The Challenge for Africa’ reads as something of an African version of a book by Barack Obama (Jr), ‘The Audacity of Hope’.

Like that, this is not a work of great literature, or of social science. It is often bland, and lacks great detail. But at its best (such as discussing the synergy between environmental protection and the more conventional priorities of international aid), it is both an accessible primer on the challenges facing Africa, and a lucid manifesto for how to address them.

Maathai argues that a combination of colonialism, poverty, conflict and environmental degradation has alienated contemporary Africans from their culture; without “restoration”, attempts at development and democratisation will be blighted by short-termist and divisive politics.

“Planting trees, speaking our language, telling our stories, and not dismissing the lives of our ancestors are all part of the same act of conservation,” she writes. “Our work is reclamation – bringing back what is essential so we can move forward.” Many of those who work in aid and development are permanently impatient to make that move forward; so Maathai’s idea, that Africans in particular must look back, first, is an audacious one, and noble.

‘The Challenge for Africa’ by Wangari Maathai. Published by William Heinemann

Review published in the Irish Times, June 2009