In Florence Chenoweth’s native Liberia, a nation stumbling out of the darkness of a 25-year civil war, schools long shuttered by violence and political turmoil have reopened. Children again stream into classrooms, but when they arrive, they often find few books or supplies. They take notes on scraps of paper, using pencils that have been broken into pieces so that everyone might have something to write with.
In such images, Chenoweth MS’70 PhD’86 sees both the hope and the heartbreaking reality of Africa, a continent widely plagued by disease, malnutrition and poverty, yet full of promising signs of recovery. And she equally sees opportunity, a chance to make a sustained difference in the future of her homeland.
“When I met (Liberian president Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), I asked what I could go out and start working on, and she said education,” says Chenoweth. “So we sent out a massive appeal to raise money for textbooks.” Working through the U.S.-based charity Books for Africa, Chenoweth marshaled a campaign that so far has sent more than 75,000 books to Liberia’s schools.
Making a difference is something of a career habit for Chenoweth. In 12 years with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Office, including the last six as the FAO’s representative to the U.N. General Assembly, she has led an international push to improve food systems and aid the estimated 850 million people around the world who are hungry. After retiring from the U.N. in May, she headed back to Madison, where she is now launching UW-Madison’s new Human Rights Initiative. The cross-campus program will carry out research and education to promote fundamental rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, and draw attention to parts of the world where those rights are denied.
To this new effort Chenoweth brings a humbling sense of the scale of these threats. She says she goes to sleep each night reminding herself that 16,000 children will not wake up in the morning because they don’t have sufficient food. But she also brings a resilient belief that such realities can be turned around.
“By nature, I am an optimist. Even in the darkest of times, I see hope at the end,” she says. “The end that I see in my mind—and the end that I hope for and the end that I work for—is a positive one, that things will change for the better.”
Throughout her life, Chenoweth has found her optimism tested by circumstance. After earning a master’s degree in agricultural economics, she returned to Liberia and at age 32 became Africa’s first female minister of agriculture. Forced to resign in 1979, following a controversial proposal to raise tariffs on imported rice, Chenoweth was fortuitously outside of government when an violent coup erupted less than a year later. Soldiers stormed the capital city of Monrovia, assassinating the president and marching 13 government officials to a beach, where they were tied to stakes and shot.
“If Florence had been minister at that time, she would have been on that beach,” says John Rowe, a former associate director of CALS international programs who spent three years in Liberia during the 1970s as a representative for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Warned that her life was in danger, Chenoweth retreated to her home, hiding in a closet and risking movement only after dark. After three months of this sequestered life, she and three siblings fled Liberia, walking for two days to reach safety in Sierra Leone. She has not returned since. Only in the past two years, as stability returned and Liberia elected Johnson-Sirleaf as Africa’s first female president, has she been “proud to sing my national anthem again.”
When her homeland fell into civil war, Chenoweth blazed a path into international activism. She returned to UW-Madison to complete her doctorate and eventually caught on with a UW-Madison project in Zambia that worked to improve the country’s agricultural policies. Joining the FAO in 1995, she worked to establish sustainable farming practices in Gambia, South Africa and several other African nations.
“If there’s one thing that is really the mark of her career, it’s that she has always been a person who can make good things happen,” says Rowe. He recalls working with Chenoweth to assess Liberia’s agricultural production in the 1970s, a project often bogged down by a lack of money or supplies. “She always had an idea, whether it was for where to get a new set of tires for the car or how to get a budgetary request approved.”
In recent years, Chenoweth has pushed for long-range solutions to the conditions underlying world hunger. While international aid organizations do an admirable job of supplying and distributing food, she says those efforts need to be complemented by improvements in water management and agricultural practices. “We can never solve the problem with a stop-gap measure,” she says.
This is why Chenoweth is so heartened by the growth of programs such as the FAO’s junior farmer training schools, which teach agricultural and life skills to children whose parents have died of AIDS. FAO has set up 34 of these schools in Mozambique, Kenya, Namibia and Zambia, and Chenoweth says the results are inspiring. “The children (who graduate from these schools) are just bursting with enthusiasm,” she says. “They know that they can take care of themselves, and they no longer see themselves as left out of society.”
Chenoweth has seen entire villages wiped out by AIDS, leaving orphaned children who have lost more than just their parents. They have lost the people who can teach them the skills they need to survive.
“Part of the African society is to take care of your community. But the scale of (the AIDS) pandemic has just weakened that ability for society to cope,” Chenoweth says. “That is why you have all of these orphans. It is just overwhelming.”
It might be enough to cause one to give up hope—except that Chenoweth has shown repeatedly that while her heart is easy to win, her resolve is hard to break.