Wangari Maathai addressing the American Association of Publishers Paper Issue Working Group at Random House, New York. (Photo: Martin Rowe)
Some of the most creative ideas about how to reforest developing countries come from a Kenyan woman. Wangari Maathai is the leader of a tree-planting movement and the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In the first part of a two-part interview, host Steve Curwood catches up with Wangari Maathai about her most recent work and about some of the events that helped shape her vision.
CURWOOD: The new book “Unbowed” tells the story of a child from a village in Kenya who became the first girl in her family to go to school, and then the first woman of color in her part of the world to earn a doctorate.
The story continues with her founding a global peace and development movement based on planting trees and then waking up one morning to a phone call telling her she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize. And no, the story isn't fiction.
It's the memoir of Wangari Maathai, one of the most accomplished environmental and human rights leaders of our time. “Professor” as she's known in Kenya, is visiting the United States this month. She's speaking about her efforts to preserve the rainforest of Central Africa and her other work on behalf of the environment and democracy that was recognized by the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. And she joins us now from a studio in Buffalo. Professor, welcome back to Living on Earth.
MAATHAI: Thank you very much.
CURWOOD: Now for those who are unaware I want to mention that you, Wangari Maathai, are the founder of just this extraordinary effort to mobilize Kenyans and people all over the world now to plant trees in deforested land. You founded programs to teach children about river ecology. You led tree planting campaigns for soldiers. Your leadership and that of the green belt movement that you founded in Kenya has, has moved Kenyans to plant what, some thirty million trees?
MAATHAI: And counting.
CURWOOD: And counting.
MAATHAI: (laughs) We are still planting. It is very important for people to understand that we are dealing with a region and a continent that is greatly deforested. Ah, and it needs literally millions and millions of trees and mobilization of as many hands as can possibly be found.
CURWOOD: And even more so as we think that the tree you plant in Kenya helps the whole world with the global warming problem.
MAATHAI: Yes, especially now that the scientists are telling us with more certainty that the climate change is indeed happening. It’s very very important for us to plant the trees as well as protect the trees that are standing because these are our friends, they help us fix the carbon that is now in the atmosphere.
CURWOOD: When you received the Nobel Peace Prize you got one of those very famous phone calls, ah, from Norway. What was just about the first thing you did after you got that phone call?
MAATHAI: I was so overwhelmed. I was literally out of myself, tears rolling down my cheeks, unbelieving. And I happened to be at this site facing Mount Kenya and for generations of past for my people this mountain was a holy mountain. And it was one of the mountains that we had been trying to save from deforestation. So I was extremely overwhelmed and I immediately dug a hole and planted a Nandi Flame.
CURWOOD: The Nandi Flame Tree, this is the bright orange flowering tree?
MAATHAI: Yeah, it’s a tree that, ah, grows quite tall. And at the top when it has flowers they are red hot. So from a distance the tree looks like it is aflame. That’s why I guess the English, when they first saw the tree they called it Nandi Flame.
CURWOOD: Now being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along the way you wound up in jail, not once not twice, but several times. All because, what, you were planting trees. Why were you jailed for planting trees?
MAATHAI: Well, the jailing was not because of planting trees per say. It was because in the course of planting trees, in the course of mobilizing, in the course of creating networks of women to plant the trees it had become necessary to also give them information on how the environment is destroyed sometimes by the state. And it became necessary for us to raise our voices and tell the government that it was not managing those resources responsibly. Ah, and it was while we were doing this that we got arrested. The actual planting of trees would have been alright. But it would have been completely nonsensical for us to be planting trees on one side and other people are cutting them on the other. So we decided to protect the standing trees and especially forests, which also serve as the water catchment areas for millions of people who live around the mountains.
CURWOOD: Now it’s not easy for women anywhere on the planet but I don’t know if people understand how difficult it is to be an outspoken woman in East Africa, or was. You, ah, were the first woman of color to have a PhD in Central and East Africa as I understand it.
MAATHAI: Yes indeed. It’s always very difficult to be a pioneer. And women, I guess, have been pioneering for a long time trying to break the barriers of discrimination and denial of capacity to exploit our potential. And going to school for me was breaking one of those barriers. Getting to high school, coming to America and attending college, going home and registering for a PhD; all these were breaking barriers. And sometimes when you are breaking barriers some people will applaud you but some people want to discourage you because they think you are breaking those barriers that should not be broken because people want to fix you in a box.
MAATHAI: Yes. That has always been our challenge, from the very beginning. And we hope that, at least now, that our work has been validated that we would receive the support we need. Right now, as I speak, our biggest challenge is office space so that we can expand, because there is so much demand for us, both locally and globally.
CURWOOD: At one point there was talk of spreading the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting mobilization to Haiti, ah, you were in touch with former Vice President Al Gore, in fact, about those efforts. Haiti, of course, is one of the most deforested and frankly God-forsaken spots on this planet. Um, what’s going on now in that regard?
MAATHAI: It has been very very, difficult, ah doing things in Haiti, because to succeed you need people on the ground who are committed to it, and that has been missing. Somebody cannot come from outside and plant trees in Haiti, rehabilitate the environment in Haiti. It must be done by the Haitians, we can share our experience with them, but it is they who must do it. The government, as you know there, has been in trouble for many years. We even brought some Haitians all the way to Kenya with the assistance of some women friends, who were helping us. But when they went back they didn’t do anything. They kind of fizzled away. It’s not easy. It’s not a matter of talking. It’s a matter of going down on your knees, digging holes, putting those seedlings, and first and foremost you have to start with the seeds. So you look for seeds, you put them in, they germinate, you nurture them. When they are about two feet high, you put them in the ground and you water them and you protect them. We are still in touch with them. And, ah we are now trying another organization, which I hope will help us to make a break through. But my appeal is that Haitians join us, so that we can share our experience. They can get down on their knees and rehabilitate their country, one tree at a time.
CURWOOD: Wangari Maathai, ah, from your own perspective what about your life is, perhaps in any woman’s life, what’s extraordinary about what’s happened to you and the changes that you’ve been able to help make possible?
MAATHAI: I think that what has happened that is extraordinary, ah was sometimes completely unexpected. Going to school, was in itself an extraordinary event because I was going to school at a time when very few girls were going to school. And then in the 1960’s I had another great opportunity when I found myself coming to America, along with over 300 students, in an event that was organized by Senator John Kennedy, who was at that time campaigning to become the next President of the United States of America and then I came to this country at a very interesting time, during the times when Martin Luther King and his colleagues were having the demonstrations and calling for changes in the law to give all Americans, and especially black Americans, all full rights and that had a great influence on me so that when I went back home, and eventually encountered human rights violations and tortures of people who were seeking greater political space, I did not hesitate to advocate for their release, and to advocate for respect for human rights and women’s rights. And in my own way, my own life was demonstrating that if you give a woman her rights, if you give her an opportunity, she can indeed make a great contribution, she can, she has great potential. But it’s not as if I chose it now. I didn’t choose these obstacles, they were just being put, ah before me, partly by culture, partly by tradition, partly by the way the society was structured.
CURWOOD: And that’s why you call the next to last chapter of your book: Rise Up and Walk.
MAATHAI: That’s right. I think one of the, the great messages that I try to share is that it is very important for all of us to know that we are human. We are not divine. So we make mistakes, we fall. And that is not a crime. What we need to do every time is gather enough courage to rise up and walk. But in the process we may need people to give us, the, a helping hand to help us become whole. Because I borrowed that from the story of Peter and John in the Bible.
I think it is in the chapter of the Acts, those of you who read the Bible, you remember the story of the man who was disabled from birth. He was sitting at the entrance to the Synagogue and people would come and give him alms. But when Peter and John came Peter said, “Silver and gold I have none. But what I have I’ll give you. In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk.” And the book says he rose up, he felt his limbs become whole. And he rose up and he was very happy. I love that story because I think that is what we should do with people who are poor, people who are marginalized, people who are not given opportunities. We don’t need to give them alms. We don’t need to give them aid. We need to empower them. We need to help them become whole. Give them a hand and help them rise up and walk.
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