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Nobel Prize winners from East Africa

Updated: Apr 22, 2022

Tanzanian writer Abdul Razzaq Gurnah - author of 10 novels, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature October this year.

The first African writer to receive the prize in more than a decade.

He is recognised for his uncompromising and sympathetic writings on the effects of colonialism. He also writes about the culture and the fate of refugees on continents.

He became famous for the novel “Paradise”. The New York Times wrote: “shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, this novel opens in East Africa before World War I and follows 12-year-old Yusuf, handed over to a wealthy merchant as an indentured servant. Our reviewer called it “a poignant meditation on the nature of freedom and the loss of innocence, for both a single sensitive boy and an entire continent.”

Gurnah is a wonderful writer, writing about a man's struggle to find a purpose for his life and makes haunting portraits of traditional societies collapsing under the weight of poverty and rapid change.

Even the minor characters in this novel have richly imagined histories that inflect their smallest interactions.

But Gurnah can be sombre: “Sometimes I think it is my fate to live in the wreckage and confusion of crumbling houses.” He wrote in his book “By the sea”. But then, he remains hopeful also: “Respect yourself and others will come to respect you. That is true about all of us but especially true about women.” (From his book “Paradisé”).

Wangari Muta Maathai - the energetic Kenyan woman won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Contrary to Gurnah, Wangari Muta Maathai was never sombre and almost always hopeful.

In the words of the Nobel Committee: "She thinks globally and acts locally."

She was fully aware of climate change and wrote: “The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.”

She was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940 and became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also the first female scholar from East Africa to take a doctorate in biology and the first female professor ever in her home country of Kenya. Maathai played an active part in the struggle for democracy in Kenya and belonged to the opposition to Daniel Arap Moi's regime.

In 1977 she started a grass-roots movement aimed at countering the deforestation that was threatening the means of subsistence of the agricultural population. The campaign encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically.

She said: “A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that to aspire we need to be grounded and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all of us who have had the success that we cannot forget where we came from. It signifies that no matter how powerful we may become in government, how many awards we may receive... Our power, strength and ability to reach our goals depend on the people around us. Those whose work remains unseen, who is the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand.”

The so-called Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries and contributed to planting over thirty million trees.

When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope”, she used to say.

Moreover: “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and to heal our own in the process - indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come

Wangari Maathai died on 25 September 2011.

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