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How far have we come as people of African Descent?

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How far have we come as people of African Descent?
By Njeri Thuku
Posted: 2022-08-31T14:39:00Z

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by Njeri Thuku – Magistrate, Kenyan Judiciary


Introduction

For the first time, on August 31, 2021, the United Nations celebrated the International Day for People of African Descent. The idea was first mooted in 1920 but it took more than 100 years to become a reality. According to the United Nations Observance website, this day “aims to promote the extraordinary contributions of the African diaspora around the world and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people of African descent” [1]. This is the second year the day will be observed and to mark this day, I have chosen to look at the contributions in three different lenses. The first is the contribution to humanity at a local level, and this is from Nobel Prize winner Prof. Wangari Maathai. The second is from the entertainment lens and will focus on Trevor Noah. The third lens is through sports and specifically looking at footballers from Africa and of African descent experience. The conclusion is that the International Day for People of African Descent is important.

 

Contribution to Humanity – Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive a Nobel peace prize in 2004. She was awarded the peace prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace in Kenya and in Africa.” [2] In Kenya, Wangari is remembered for how she stood up for two major green spaces in Nairobi, the capital city. These are Uhuru Park and Karura Forest.


In 1989, Wangari stood up to the authorities who planned to build a skyscraper 60 storeys high – known as Times Media Complex - in Uhuru (Swahili for “freedom”) Park. It was to be the tallest building in East Africa. According to the Greenbelt Movement website, “Prof Maathai decided to act. Virtually alone, personally vilified by the government and shunned by friends, who feared the wrath of the authorities, she waged a highly letter-writing campaign. In February 1990, the Times Media Complex was quietly shelved.” [3]


Karura Forest is today managed by the Kenya Forest Service. It is bordered on one side by one of Nairobi’s affluent neighbourhoods and is close to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) headquarters. The acreage is approximately 2,500 acres. During the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 it was one of the most visited places for those who wanted to be outdoors. In 1999, Wangari Maathai led some people to plant trees in Karura Forest. At the time, the government of the day had made plans to excise the part of the forest of illegal development. Together with supporters Wangari sustained injuries that led to her admission in hospital. But the government got the message and Karura Forest remains intact today. A postscript to this story is there are plans to rename Karura Forest to Wangara Maathai Forest, a befitting name.


Before the world knew Wangari Maathai, this is what she did for Kenya. Her contribution on the world stage was against this background and, though it is more than ten years since she died (she passed on September 25, 2011), Wangari’s legacy lives on in Kenya and around the world.

 

Entertainment – Trevor Noah

Trevor Noah is the host of The Daily Show with two and half a million viewers. Born to a South African mother and a Swiss father, Trevor grew up in Johannesburg before moving to the United States to host the Daily Show in 2015[4]. In his memoir Born a Crime, Trevor narrates his experience being raised in apartheid South African with parents of different races.


His stint as the host of The Daily Show has seen more diversified guests on the show. The variety in the guests alone cannot be attributed to Trevor Noah only, because there are producers and writers who work together to put on The Daily Show. Nevertheless, the guests hosted are from different fields, backgrounds and nationalities. They provide a refreshing outlook. Trevor is also not shy to comment and call out behaviour that is discriminatory based on race such as the death of George Floyd. This aligns with the main aim of the International Day of People of African Descent.


Footballers playing internationally

Universally a sport is meant to be a unifying factor. Where divisions exist, sport is used as a tool to break barriers especially among young people. Football is one of the main sports used to break barriers.


Since the 1990s, there has been an increasing number of players from Africa or of African descent playing football in the international arena. But despite achieving international fame and taking their teams to great heights, these footballers continue to experience racism. The racism is both on the pitch during the matches and online. According to a report by FIFA, half of the footballers who play for the European Championship and the African Cup of Nations suffered online abuse [5].


Most of the footballers suffering the abuse are young. Many were born after the genocide in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. It is gut wrenching that even though they give their best on the field, they have to deal with a fan throwing a banana on the field or monkey emojis on their social media pages or vulgar epithets being spewed on them as they play. It is a commendable that some organizations are taking steps to address racism in football. In some instances, the teams have staged a protest walk out in solidarity with their insulted teammates. In my view, the fact that racism is rife in international football is yet another reason why the International Day for People of African Descent is relevant. 


Conclusion

George Santayana said, “Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.” This is the reason why the observance of the International Day of People of African Descent is important. It is an opportunity not just to celebrate and mark the achievements but also to look back and see the gains made. There is also an opportunity to interrogate how discrimination takes place and find ways to eliminate it. These small incremental efforts around the world yield change. Or as stated by Ovid, “Dripping water hollows out a stone, not through force but through persistence.”



[1] “Honouring the contributions of the African diaspora” available at https://www.un.org/en/observances/african-descent-day

[2] “Wangari Maathai: The outspoken conservationist” available at https://www.dw.com/en/wangari-maathai-the-outspoken-conservationist/a-52448394

[3] “Hands off our Uhuru Park, green spaces a matter of life and death” available at https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/910. Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement a grass-roots organization whose aim was to encourage women groups to plant trees to conserve the environment and improve their quality of life.

[4] “Trevor Noah takes over for Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/trevor-noah-to-take-over-for-jon-stewart-on-the-daily-show/

[5] “Almost half of footballers face racist abuse - FIFA” available at https://www.trtworld.com/sport/almost-half-of-footballers-face-racist-abuse-fifa-58109