Monday, October 18, 2010

Go and Do Likewise

Several months ago, I ran into Canadian academic and activist Leigh Brownhill at a party. She kindly offered me a copy of her book, Land, Food, Freedom, in exchange for a review on my blog. Brownhill traveled to Africa to record the stories of a movement that spanned generations and involved hundreds of thousands of Kenyan peasant women. How could I resist?

Leigh Brownhill reads from her book

The result is a fascinating read, if academic at times. These women fought for their right to reclaim their land and determine their own destinies. They endured concentration camps, rape, and torture during the 1950s Mau Mau War against the British, followed by the "housewifeization" campaigns of the new post-colonial government, designed to impose European standards of beauty, dress, diet, and submissive feminine behavior in the 1960s.

What impressed me was how practical and successful they were in reaching their goals -- perhaps because women did not take their cues from a single political party or charismatic leader, but from a network of social groups organized for resource sharing and mutual support. During the general strikes of the early 1950s, they created an alternative food distribution system that served thousands of strikers. Flash-forward to the 1990s and see Mau Mau veteran Ruth Wangari launch a successful hunger strike and year-long vigil involving more than 10,000 people at "Freedom Corner" to release 52 political prisoners - one of the events that led to the downfall of dictator Daniel Arap Moi. Or recall Wangari Maathai, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in founding the Green Belt Movement for tree planting and soil conservation across Africa.

The historical person known as Jesus came from a country under occupation, full of dispossessed farmers expelled from their land by the Romans. Christianity is one of the earliest examples of a nonviolent social protest movement that worked. We need more examples.

May Day 2010 - Holyoke, MA

Photos by Peter Palmobella.
Visit Leigh Brownhill's website at

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