|Talking to the tree woman - Wangari Maathai||
Kenya’s Tree Woman, Wangari Maathai, has not been resting on her laurels. Since becoming the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she has been travelling around the world to give lectures and share her triumph with the environmental activists and peace groups who have supported her life’s work. She continues to serve in the Kenyan government, and was recently named by Forbes magazine in the US as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world today. Judy van der Walt tracked her down in South Africa.
When Professor Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, a group of Kenyan students at the University of Cape Town planted a tree in her honour. Maathai had promised them that if she ever visited Cape Town, she would personally come and water the little Dombeya rotundifolia, a wild pear tree. This year she made it to Cape Town for one day. Her schedule was hectic, but she kept her promise.
When she arrived at the students’ residence splendidly dressed in Kenyan ethnic dress, all the frenzy dissolved in the Tree Woman’s quiet but strong presence. She walked up to the tree and took a branch in her hand. “Hello,” she said, as if greeting a person she really liked, dousing the wild pear with a red watering can in steadily falling rain.
The energetic 65-year old, who says planting a tree was the best idea she ever had, started the Green Belt Movement in Kenya almost three decades ago. As a member of a national women’s movement, she listened to women relate their need for water, fuel and nutritious food and realised their problems were symptoms of a poorly-managed environment.
She hit on the idea of organising a women’s tree-planting programme to counter soil erosion and provide food, fuel and shade. Next the participants established small nurseries close to their homes and in the process became ‘foresters without diplomas’.
The Green Belt’s activities soon spilled over into educating people about human rights and democracy. In spite of political harassment, Maathai and the Green Belt played an active part in the long struggle for democracy that eventually led to Kenya’s free and fair elections in 2002.
“By recognising our work, the Nobel Committee decided there is a link between how we manage the world today and the way we can enjoy peace,” she said.
The Green Belt Movement has planted 30 million trees in Kenya and other African countries and created jobs for some 100,000 people, mostly women. In 2002 Maathai became Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and has pledged to work with communities to protect and restore the country’s indigenous forests.
Q What has been the strength behind your achievements?
A My parents were extraordinary people. To send a daughter to school was visionary where I grew up and my parents took our studies seriously. I wasn’t burdened with household chores like most other girls. As a result of their confidence I just never questioned my ability to succeed.
I went to a missionary school and was fortunate to have wonderful teachers – nuns from Italy, Ireland and the US – who expanded my horizons. I did well at school and that opened up many opportunities for me. I studied in the US and Germany and became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.
Q How did you become an environmentalist?
A I grew up with green all around me and all that green greatly influenced me. The green colour seems to do something to our eyes, our psyche. That it why I always encourage each person I meet to plant ten trees.
During my childhood in the rural district of Nyeri in central Kenya we would see fires in the distance, but I didn’t understand it. It was only when I grew up that I understood the government had destroyed huge parts of our national forest to plant cash crops. Rivers had dried up, rain patterns had changed and the soil was eroded. When resources are wasted and not shared equally it is a violation of human rights. I had to do something about it.
Q How has your life changed as a result of the Nobel Peace Prize?
A It is such an extraordinary prize, highly coveted and competitive. So when this committee mentions your name, you are suddenly on top of the world and a lot of people want to know what you think.
Especially this time, because it was the first time they made the linkage between environment, government and peace. So there were many environmental and peace groups that felt they shared in this recognition and want to celebrate with me. And that is really a wonderful thing. So I have felt obliged to respond to as many of these groups as I can and for this reason I have been travelling around the world a lot.
Q What impact has your Nobel win had in Kenya?
A It has really given Kenyans a great sense of pride and a new energy, especially those who had gone through the struggle with the Green Belt Movement for so many years. It was a day of triumph when we realised that all this work that has been done with so much effort has at last been recognised. I think many Kenyans have a sense of “Wow! I knew it was important but I didn’t know it was that important”.
Q What is the best way of boosting tourism in Africa without harming the environment?
A The Green Belt Movement organises educational tours for people concerned about conservation. We show them how we are struggling to restore the environment. We also discuss what is being done wrong in the classic tours. Once a critical mass of people understands the impact of tourism on the environment they can put pressure on the tourism industry to ‘do it right’. This awareness is also forcing the travel industry to look into packaging tours that do not harm the environment in the process. This pressure from conservationally minded clients is building up increasingly.
Q Are you optimistic about the G8 countries’ efforts to reduce poverty in Africa?
A I am very concerned about the gap between the very active involvement of civil society in the industrialised G8 countries and a near absence of such awareness in Africa. The success of the decisions made by the G8 leaders depends not only on the government of the poor countries, but also on the people they represent.
There are no campaigns aimed at educating African people about the debts and the responses expected from the leaders of Africa and its people. I believe that a forum to do so is desperately needed. We are at a crucial period in history in which a new moral high ground is about to be reached. I fear that while many African leaders are ready for what is about to unfold, Africans are not. The challenge is to awaken them and bring them on board. Africa needs to rise up and walk.
At the same time, African leaders need to govern in the interests of their people. They need to invest in education and technical skills, manage their resources sustainably, promote peace and security and strengthen their civil societies.
Q Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the task you face?
A Let me tell you an old African story. Once there was a hummingbird that lived in the forest. Then a huge fire broke out in the forest and all the animals fled. But the hummingbird kept flying to the stream, collecting a few drops of water in its beak and dropping it on the flames. The lions and elephants and giraffes mocked the hummingbird until at last the bird responded: “I’m doing the best I can.” And that’s all we can do, the best we can.
|< Previous||Next >|
|Search The Site|