When those residing in the Western world consider the continent of Africa, many conjure images of devastation, famine and war. Televised news agencies flock to disasters or conflicts in Africa only to feed an insatiable appetite for images of chaos and deprivation suffered by the darker peoples of the world. NGOs, as well as for-profit and non-profit organizations flock to the Continent in an effort to alleviate suffering. While their humanitarian aid can, at times, be successful and is often welcomed, these aid institutions tend to transmit an unintentional message of continental helplessness and retrogression.  With a hegemonic gaze, the Western world watches the ebb and flow of African misfortune—both real and overblown—and defines the Continent by these images. 

Wangari Maathai’s book, The Challenge for Africa, stands as a call to dispel with the stereotyping of Africa and to recognize the region as an international equal. Unearthing Africa’s colonized history, acknowledging its faults, and calling for a new day, Maathai declares, “Africa has been on her knees for too long.” She then calls for a new corps of African leaders to construct public diplomacy agendum to be carried out by a new generation of personally and civically responsible individuals. According to her text, Africans hold the key to a renewed continent, not outsiders.

This discussion of solutions for Africa fits nicely into an existing canon of works including Dambisa Moyo’s recent and controversial text, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa. But Maathai’s work stands apart from others in regards to its optimistic vision of Africa’s future and for her willingness to acknowledge that Africa’s image on the global stage is both self-constructed and devised by outside entities. She also concentrates heavily on the role of aid in this dynamic. 

Throughout The Challenge for Africa, Maathai clamors for a shift from the images of corrupt or ineffective African leaders and those of children with distended bellies and dying women with flies in their eyes. She also raises the question of why such images are maintained, and her answers relate to both Africa’s media outlets and the failure of its political leaders. Citing the Ethiopian famine of 1985, Maathai recalls that Kenyan cameraman Mohamed Amin traveled with musician Bob Geldof to chronicle the effects of the famine on the populous. Only because of the interest of a Westerner did the neighboring Kenyan population become aware of a distressed Ethiopia. She then asks why a highly progressive and capable Kenya did not mobilize to alleviate the suffering of their northern neighbors. 

Gratefully, she does employ examples of current public diplomacy efforts throughout the Continent that aim to alter the current image of Africa. Citing organizations such as the Economic, Social, and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC) which outreaches to civil society organizations, Maathai chronicles efforts that allow Africans to be heard and acknowledged within the African Union, and which give ongoing internal support to Africa-based aid and development organizations. The ECOSOCC also works to redevelop cultural institutions and traditions that have faded, due to a history of colonization and, to some degree, Christianization. Even African religious leaders have begun to lobby to entities like the Catholic Church for a role for African traditions within their Christian faiths. In response, a new dynamic has appeared, giving credibility to the power of African tradition and culture in the Continental practice of Western religion. In 1995, Pope John Paul II apologized to Africans for the Catholic Church’s past declarations that many African practices were “Satanic or incompatible with Christ’s teachings.”  Reversal in sentiments like that of the Pope’s, help the slow but persistent efforts of Africans to reconstruct their image in the Western mind. Still, Maathai makes it clear that aid-giving societies and even celebrities could begin to assist in constructing a more balanced image for the world, thus allowing Africa to enter the global community as a proud equal—not as a degraded charity case. 

Maathai argues that the image of a distraught Africa is a comfort to the West; these images, which often go unquestioned, have a devastating effect on the global policies for the region. To a large degree, such images downplay the existence of unfair trade policies and the overwhelming debt held by the majority of African nations. As of 2004, “Kenya owed $6.8 billion dollars and sends…a million dollars a day in debt payments.” The illogical relationship between receiving aid while paying off debts only encourages Africa’s cycle of poverty.

In summary, it must be considered that a deconstruction of the West’s hegemonic gaze and its hegemonic policies throughout Africa would shift our perceptions of ourselves. As stated in the work of Michael Maren in his memoir, The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity, “…Africa was more than a place on the map, it was a location in our collective psyche.  The ‘starving African’ exists as a point in space from which we measure our own wealth, success and prosperity. The starving African transcends the dull reality of whether or not anyone is actually starving in Africa.  Starvation clearly delineates us from them.” If Maathai’s challenge for the region is indeed met within the next few decades, the delineation will no longer exist. 

The Challenge for Africa is a fascinating read for all those interested in the effects of aid on Africa, the importance of global perceptions towards the Continent, and understanding the complex relationship between Africa and the West. Maathai’s desire for an autonomous and democratic Africa echoes existing calls, and only a new cadre of African leaders—local, national and continental—can truly meet her challenge.