By STEVEN NALLEY
According to the United Nations’ World Food Program, more than a billion people struggle with hunger.
Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum cited this and other world hunger statistics in unveiling this year’s Maroon Edition Monday. He said more than 60 percent of those facing chronic hunger are women, and hunger and malnutrition contribute to the deaths of 10 million children under the age of five in developing countries each year.
“I know that universities like ours are well-equipped to help governments, international organizations and the private business sector, along with other non-government organizations, in addressing these problems,” Keenum said. “At Mississippi State, one of our goals is to build on our history of international outreach and our capabilities in agriculture and related areas to contribute to the fight against world hunger, which overlaps with issues such as environmental degradation, poverty and women’s rights.”
With this goal in mind, Keenum revealed “Unbowed” by Wangari Maathai as this year’s Maroon Edition in the Mitchell Memorial Library’s John Grisham Room Monday.
Maroon Edition is an initiative to engage all freshmen and the MSU campus and community in reading a chosen book each summer, with programs throughout the year fostering discussion about the book. Maroon Edition Program Chair Linda Morris said the MSU Division of Student Affairs is enabling the program to distribute copies of the book to every freshman who attends MSU’s summer orientation.
“In fact, they’re even going to place it in their hands when they come to orientation ... so I’m very excited about that,” Morris said. “Students can then read the book over the summer and be ready to participate in the activities beginning in the fall.”
“Unbowed” is Maathai’s memoir about her journey from a poor farming family in Kenya — then the British colony of East Africa — to becoming the first woman in east or central Africa to earn a PhD, among other achievements, Keenum said. When she became a professor in Kenya, he said, she not only became an advocate for women’s rights, democracy and environmentalism but recognized the ties those issues shared.
“Deforestation, often to make way for more tea or coffee plantations, led to massive soil erosion, the drying of the water supplies, and shortages of fuel, food and water,” Keenum said. “These changes exacerbated the challenges of living in a country that is subject to severe droughts, where more than half of the population is in poverty, and where government corruption and ethnic violence have hampered progress for many years. Maathai reasoned that teaching rural villagers to plant trees would provide them wood for cooking and building while protecting watersheds and holding the soil in place, which in turn would improve food production. She organized tree-planting projects in numerous villages, and those projects led to the creation in 1977 of the Green Belt Movement, which Maathai led for 35 years.”
Keenum said the Green Belt Movement has planted 50 million trees in Kenya and surrounding countries, and Maathai’s efforts to promote democracy and women’s rights have attracted international attention. After losing one parliamentary election in 1997, he said, she won in 2001 in what the international community considered Kenya’s first free elections.
“In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize,” Keenum said. “It was also the first time the Nobel committee had recognized the direct links between peace, the sustainable management of natural resources, and good government. Maathai was honored for her work in all of these interconnected areas.”
Morris said forthcoming activities connected with Maroon Edition include Dawg Daze, activities with MSU’s forestry and sustainability initiatives, and a visit from Lisa Merton and Alan Dater, the filmmakers of “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.”
“We’re hoping ... for a visit from (Maathai’s) daughter, who represents the Green Belt Movement,” Morris said. “Keep your fingers crossed.”
Morris said Maroon Edition has seen three increasingly successful years, with more students attending events and reading the book. She said there was a pattern among the selections so far.
“Our first book was John Grisham’s ‘A Painted House,’” Morris said. “Then we went global with (Greg Mortenson’s) ‘Three Cups of Tea,’ and then we came back home last year with ‘The Optimist’s Daughter’ by Eudora Welty, In each book, we explored ideas and places and people, and this year’s book will be no different.”