Bungoma, Kenya

The teenagers of rural western Kenya I have met during the past year have no shortage of ambition.  Especially the girls.  They want to be doctors and nurses and teachers and lawyers and pilots.

One girl, an eighth-grader name Jackline, rises long before the sun every morning to begin making breakfast tea for her family.  By 4:30, she is walking the mile to her primary school for a special study session to prepare for the national standard exams that will determine where she will go to high school next year, if her marks are good enough.  Then after a full day of classes, and a break for a meager dinner, she returns to school after dark for another hour or two of study.

She hopes to become a nurse, and maybe work for the village pharmacy where the nurse in charge is desperate for an assistant.

Realizing these ambitions is essential for the economic development of rural areas in the developing world, particularly Africa.  A new Chicago Council report, Girls Grow: A Vital Force in Rural Economies, highlights the untapped potential of adolescent girls living in rural areas.


The report, being released today (a day on which three women, two of them Africans, were award the Nobel Peace Prize), concludes: Adolescent girls must be a key part of successful agricultural and rural economic development strategies, as they are many of the world’s future farmers, rural leaders and decision makers.  The report focuses on how girls can uniquely contribute to agriculture.

“If the world is to meet the challenge of feeding nine billion people by 2050, we must invest in the human capital of those with the potential to transform agricultural economies – adolescent girls,” said Catherine Bertini, the former director of the World Food Program and the lead author and chair of the project that produced the report. “Already, they carry much of families’ burdens; with opportunity, they can be major change agents for rural communities and nations.  As nations are rediscovering the importance of agricultural development, we want to ensure that the new definition of rural economies’ strengths includes the critical role of adolescent girls.”

The report also rightly emphasizes that rural adolescent girls face a triple challenge due to their location, gender, and age.

Many of them are daughters of smallholder farmers, who are the poorest and hungriest people in the world.  The role of these rural girls is to do much of the domestic work, like gathering firewood, fetching water and sweeping the homestead, along with their mothers, and also to help out in the field during planting and harvest times.  Many of them are discouraged from thinking big.  They are often expected to get married and work a farm, like their mothers.  As a result, women do most of the farming on smallholder plots in Africa. Girls often take a backseat to the boys in education; if a family has limited resources to afford school fees, it’s the girls who are usually the first to be kept home.

This is why agriculture development is so important, as it is a prime agent for empowering women.  The more productive their farming is, the more significant their role in feeding the family and generating income is.  Indiscriminate cuts in foreign aid that end up slashing agriculture development spending have a disproportionate impact on women in the developing world.

The Chicago Council report recommends that adolescent girls be incorporated into country-wide agricultural development plans, have more opportunities to receive agricultural skill building and participate in rural peer groups, and have greater access to agricultural inputs and credit.   Donors are also encouraged to dedicate climate change adaptation and mitigation monies targeting natural resource management to programs including girls.

I’m finding that their mothers are also pushing for their daughters to live better lives.  Just as there is no lack of ambition among rural girls, there is no lack of determination among their mothers.

In a group discussion I had with women farmers in western Kenya, it was clear that girls’ access to land was a top priority.  In rural areas like this, the custom is that land passes from fathers to sons.  Girls rarely are allowed to stay on the land on which they were born.

A number of the women farmers pointed to Kenya’s new constitution, saying it ensures that all children, no matter their gender, can inherit land.  And these women want to make sure that holds.  Most of them had to stop their education before finishing high school because their parents couldn’t afford the fees.  If they make enough money from increasing the size and nutritious value of their harvests, they say they will seek to buy land with the intent to pass it on to their daughters.  If such action becomes common, it will lead to a social transformation in the rural areas.

“Land is important for girls because not all of them will be able to complete school like the boys,” said one of the farmers.

“Or get jobs,” added another.

“Land is life,” insisted a third.

These women farmers know that their climb from hunger and poverty will be long and arduous, but they also know that one measure of success will be their daughters being able to capitalize on opportunities that they never had.

 
 
Bungoma, Kenya

Norman Borlaug and Wangari Maathai were two unlikely Nobel Peace Prize Laureates.  One came from small-town Iowa, the other from rural Kenya.  They both won the world’s most prestigious award for growing things.  Dr. Borlaug, honored in 1970, grew crops that fueled the Green Revolution.  Dr. Maathai, hailed in 2004, grew trees and democracy.  They were both deemed worthy of the Peace Prize because they worked to forestall future global conflicts by producing more food and preserving scare resources.

I am writing this because Dr. Maathai passed away earlier this week, two years after Dr. Borlaug died.  And because it is big news here in Kenya, and should be everywhere else.

She was a pioneer who opened doors and spread democracy and gender equality in her homeland. 


Dr. Maathai was the first woman in Kenya – the first in all of east and central Africa, actually -- to receive a doctorate (in veterinary anatomy).  She was one of the first powerful female voices in Kenyan politics.  She was then, naturally, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. On the conservation front, she founded the GreenBelt Movement, which fought both environmental degradation and poverty, which Dr. Maathai insisted were closely linked.  The Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa, where the rural poor, unable to afford electricity connections, burn wood for cooking, heating and lighting.

Dr. Maathai, Peace laureate, didn’t shy away from confrontation.  Her most famous stand came when she took on the ruling party in opposing a government plan to construct a building in downtown Nairobi’s prime park and green space.  She absorbed many blows both verbally and physically.  The would-be builders eventually yielded.

“Her love for trees drove her to fight to save the environment, to fight for the most vulnerable in our society, to fight injustices, to fight for democratic space and this she did taking on strong governments and powerful men,” said Ruth Oniang’o , a Kenyan nutrition specialist and advocate for agriculture development that particularly benefits smallholder farmers.

Dr. Maathai grew up in rural Kenya and became a model for millions of girls growing up on smallholder farms where poverty and hunger threaten so many dreams.  It is precisely there where her legacy will reverberate.

In her Nobel speech, Dr. Maathai said life in rural Kenya was the inspiration for her work.  Now, she is the inspiration for women and girls in rural Kenya.

At a primary school set deep amid the farming plots of western Kenya, Dr. Maathai featured prominently in a parent-student-teachers meeting this week.  The principal asked, Who died in Kenya this week?  It turned out that the students knew more about the death and life of Dr. Maathai than the parents did.

Two who were at the meeting were Leonida Wanyama and her daughter, Sitawa.

“Wangari Maathai was a big person,” said Sitawa, an 8th grader.  “When I perform well in my studies like she did, I would like to be like her.  She was a leader of planting trees.”

“She made it possible for all of us to be leaders,” said Leonida, a village elder, a rare position for a woman.

The setting for this conversation on the legacy of Dr. Maathai provided an ideal tribute: An African mother and daughter, sitting together in the shade of a mighty avocado tree.