A giant of contemporary African letters for more than half a century, Chinua Achebe is still best known for his 1958 novel, Things Fall Apart, which drew on oral traditions to tell the story of a Nigerian village transformed by colonialism and Western-imposed Christianity. He also achieved renown for his withering critiques of depictions of Africa by European writers, demanding a literature that traveled well beyond the Heart of Darkness clichés to reveal African realities, while urging Africans to be the ones to tell their own stories.
True to that appeal, this year brought Achebe's own powerful memoir, There Was a Country, an account of his life during the 1967-1970 Biafran war. Achebe had taken the Biafran side in the conflict, which left more than 1 million people dead, and served as a roving international ambassador for the breakaway government, narrowly escaping Nigerian attacks on multiple occasions. His book makes the case that the Biafran war -- Africa's first civil war to generate major international media attention -- was a harbinger of African conflicts to come, from Rwanda to Congo to Sierra Leone, all of which have their roots in the arbitrary drawing of borderlines during colonialism, were exacerbated by natural resources, and proved the inability of the international community to stop the bloodshed. "Nigeria was once a land of great hope and progress, a nation with immense resources at its disposal," writes Achebe, today a professor of Africana studies at Brown University. "But the Biafran war changed the course of Nigeria. In my view it was a cataclysmic experience that changed the history of Africa."
Sludge flows through China's rivers. The air tastes like glue. Synthetic eggs and pigs pumped full of growth hormones and cooked in oil made of recycled sewage feature on menus across the country. In the United States, asking "Why is the sky blue?" implies something so obvious that it doesn't have to be explained. But in China, home to some of the world's most polluted cities, the question's very premise is questionable.
Enter Ma Jun, the most prominent Chinese activist attempting not only to hold the government accountable but, first, to get it to tell the truth about just how dire China's pollution problem really is. His method: diligently and painstakingly collecting evidence of companies behaving badly to try to shame them into compliance. A journalist turned environmentalist who founded the Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs, Ma applies scientific rigor to exposing such corporate violations (more than 90,000 to date), flagging everything from a small coal-tar factory improperly storing its dangerous waste to Apple suppliers poisoning workers with a toxic chemical used on touch screens -- as well as local governments that flout environmental regulations across China. Dozens of major multinationals now consult Ma's pollution readings when working with suppliers in China. And by documenting environmental violations that had long been obvious but were never compiled in a way the public could easily understand, Ma has given statistical ammunition to Chinese citizens trying to nudge the Communist Party into cleaning up its act.
has pushed his message with vivid depictions of China's black rivers and
dun-colored heavens. In one recent article titled "A Dream of Blue Skies," Ma
writes of waiting for the day when "hospitals aren't filled with children
suffering from respiratory diseases … when you don't have to think hard to
choose the type of dustproof mask so that they can walk home from school
without breathing in too much soot and exhaust." He might be waiting for a long
time, but it won't be for lack of trying.
Yevgenia Chirikova had never been involved in politics before 2007, when she noticed red paint on the trees of the Khimki forest outside Moscow, where she enjoyed taking walks with her family. When she learned that a wide swath of the forest was due to be razed for the construction of a highway, she did something almost inconceivable in Russian political culture: She got organized.
A successful businesswoman with her own engineering company, Chirikova soon proved an effective activist, organizing protests and blogging her struggle to save the forest. When thousands of people began attending the rallies and celebrities including U2's Bono began speaking out on her behalf, the Russian state fought back. Chirikova was jailed multiple times, and at one point officials threatened to take away her children on trumped-up neglect charges. The Khimki protests were an early sign of the growing levels of dissent in Russia, which boiled over into the massive rallies held before, and after, Vladimir Putin's reelection this year. And Chirikova, who helped organize the protests and recently challenged the ruling United Russia party in local elections (she lost, but alleged voter fraud), was way ahead of the curve. During the Putin era, the public faces of the Russian opposition have typically been intellectuals, ex-politicians, or tycoons. With Chirikova, who runs her campaign out of a tiny basement beside a fruit and vegetable store, Russian activists have a more accessible symbol: an ordinary woman with unusual determination fighting to save her home.
Reading list: Anton Chekhov short stories and novels (reread); Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution -- and How It Can Renew America, by Thomas Friedman.
Best idea: Preserving the view from your own window, the small motherland each of us has.
American decline or American renewal? Renewal. Smart America will realize it is time to walk away from the idea of consuming society and become a responsible society.
More Europe or less? More.
To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.
Chirikova tells FP:"Before the Arab revolutions, many lived with the stereotype that poverty pushes people to street protests. The Arab Spring demonstrated that even when people do not starve, they still go to protest, because they are unhappy about the regimes in their countries. If they can do it, why cannot we? We saw that the square can be real, that we also can come out and demand changes. Before, people were too scared to demonstrate their views. Since last winter, our squares have filled up with people demanding Putin's resignation, demanding political changes." "I am against revolutions. We have had negative experience with coups and rallies in the past. We remember the shooting at the White House in Moscow. We still mourn dozens of victims. The new Russia's protest is the most beautiful, most peaceful, most intelligent protest in the world -- not a single broken window, not a single burned car or victim."