Commitment to peaceful change


November 19, 2006|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,Sun Reporter

Life has been a remarkable journey for Wangari Maathai, the 66-year-old Kenyan whose melding of environmental activism and democratic populism earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Maathai has vowed to "keep walking as long as my knees hold out." Many Kenyans hope her final destination is the presidency of the country.

She was raised in the Aberdare Mountains north of Nairobi. If not for an older brother pleading her case with their parents, she likely wouldn't have gone to school beyond eighth grade.

As it was, Maathai became part of the "Kennedy Airlift," a 1960s scholarship program that brought young African students to America. She graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, received a master's at the University of Pittsburgh, and later a doctorate back home.

While teaching veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi in the mid-1970s, Maathai became involved with the National Council of Women of Kenya. Through that organization she learned about the plight of rural families. Deforestation was causing shortages of firewood and the erosion of entire mountainsides. Farms were turning to "cash crops" like tea and coffee rather than producing food for local consumption.

Maathai conceived a grassroots solution called the Greenbelt Movement. She enlisted an army that grew to 100,000 volunteers, mostly women. They planted 40 million trees and, in the process, helped start a social revolution.

Under the government of then-President Daniel arap Moi, Kenya's de facto dictator, Maathai was harassed, beaten and eventually imprisoned.

But democracy took root. In 2002 Moi stepped aside for a popularly elected president. Maathai won a seat in Parliament, then was appointed assistant minister for the environment.

The Nobel Committee hailed her as a "strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions." Time magazine named "the Professor," as she is widely known, one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Wangari Maathai has written a memoir entitled Unbowed (Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95). The Sun caught up with her during a book-tour stop in Washington. Who were your role models as a child?

I was greatly influenced by the people who were in power when I was growing up. People like [Jomo] Kenyatta in Kenya [the country's first president]. People like [President John F.] Kennedy. I admired very much people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi who committed themselves to change civil society nonviolently. You had a formative experience as a young girl. What happened to the forest outside your village?

I would have been 6 or 7. The British were in charge of the country and they decided they wanted to establish commercial plantations of pine and eucalyptus trees. To do that they have to clear-cut the indigenous forest. When they clear-cut, they put the forest on fire.

I'd see these bonfires, especially at night. Later on I'd go with my mother and aunt into the forest to collect firewood. I'd see the charred remains of the trees and these ashes on the ground.

All this, of course, is presented to me as "development." I do not at that stage realize the damage we are doing to the environment. When do you become aware of the effects of deforestation?

It will be almost 20 years later. I'm a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and I'm required to do some research. We are trying to improve the livestock industry by importing hybrid cattle from Europe. But this project is threatened by a disease called East Coast fever, which is transmitted by ticks that infect cattle.

I go into the countryside to see the extent of infection. In the course of doing that, when it rains I notice that there is massive erosion and the rivers are brown with silt.

I recall how clean the rivers were when I was a child. I begin to think that what's happening to the land is much more dangerous than the disease I'm worried about. You got the idea to recruit women from the countryside to plant trees. Were you aware how controversial that might be?

In the beginning I didn't have much vision. I didn't know it was something I would commit my life to and become a movement. Why did the Moi government come to regard you as such a threat?

I was exposing a system that had become so exploitive of its own people and its own resources: violating human rights, being very oppressive. I knew whatever we tried to do, it wouldn't go anywhere unless we changed the political system. Were there times you genuinely feared for your life?

Yes, there were times I was very afraid. There are times you feel surrounded and "Now they have me. Maybe I will not get out of here alive." Then-Vice President Al Gore and other world leaders contacted the Kenyan government on your behalf. Did that pressure help?

Oh, yes. They probably would have killed me.

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