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2004-10-21

Daughter of 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Winner Wangari Maathai Discusses her Mother, Kenya and the Environment

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We speak with the Wanjira Maathai, daughter of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai who was recently awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Wanjira is the international liaison for the world-renowned Green Belt Movement which was founded by her mother. [includes rush transcript]

Earlier this month, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai was named the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai is an ecologist and zoology professor from Kenya and the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She is 63 years old. She rose to international fame for campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s and 1990s.

She once said of the forest clearances "It’s a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem."

In 1992 riot police clubbed her and three other women unconscious in central Nairobi during a demonstration. She has been tear gassed, threatened with death by anonymous callers, and once thrown into jail overnight for leading protests.

  • Wangari Maathai, speaking about the violence she faces in Kenya.

Earlier this month the Nobel Prize Committee named Wangari Maathai as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. This is what she had to say about winning the award:

  • Wangari Maathai, speaking about the violence she faces in Kenya.

Wangari Maathai founded the * Green Belt Movement* in 1977, when began what turned out to be a 30-year old campaign of re-forestation by planting just nine trees. Today about 30 million trees have been planted across Africa since her campaign started. The trees helped check desertification, promote bio-diversity, created food and jobs especially for rural women.

Wangari’s daughter, Wanjira Maathai joins in our studio today. She is the international liaison for the Green Belt Movement and is a rising figure in Kenyan and international environmental, women’s and social justice movements.

  • Wanjira Maathai, international liaison for the world-renowned Green Belt Movement of Kenya. The Green Belt movement was founded by her mother, Wangari Maathai who was recently awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace prize, becoming the first African woman and first environmentalist to win the award. Wanjira is a rising figure in Kenyan and international environmental, women’s and social justice movements.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the story of Kenyan environmental Wangari Maathai, earlier this month she was named the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She is an ecologist and zoology professor from Kenya, the first woman from East Africa to win the Nobel — from Africa — to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the first East African woman to get a Ph.D. She is 63 years old, rose to international fame for campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late eighties and nineties. She once said of the forest clearances, quote, "It’s a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction, and it is a man-made problem."

JUAN GONZALEZ: In 1992, riot police clubbed her and three other women unconscious in central Nairobi during a demonstration. She has been tear-gassed, threatened with death by anonymous callers, and once thrown into jail overnight for leading protests. This is Wangari Maathai speaking about the violence she faces in Kenya.

WANGARI MAATHAI:I do know that what I do hurts some very powerful people in their own way. Because we live in a very volatile continent and, as well, a very volatile country, you just never know when something may happen and you may be at the wrong place.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Earlier this month, the Nobel Prize Committee named Wangari Maathai as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. This is what she had to said when she heard the announcement.

WANGARI MAATHAI:This, indeed, is not a recognition of one person, but a recognition of all people who work for the environment, who work for peace, who work for democracy, and who work for a better quality of life.

AMY GOODMAN: Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, began what turned out to be a 30-year campaign of reforestation by planting just nine trees. Today about 30 million trees have been planted across Africa since her campaign began. The trees helped check desertification, promote biodiversity, created food and jobs especially for rural women. Today on Democracy Now!, we’re joined by Wangari Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Maathai, an international liaison for the Greenbelt Movement and a rising figure in the Kenyan and international environmental and women’s and social justice movements. When we come back from our break she joins in our studio. This is Democracy Now! Stay with us.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman with Juan Gonzalez. We are joined by Wanjira Maathai. She is the daughter of Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Wanjira grew up in Kenya, came to the United States where she went to college at Hobart William Smith and then to graduate school at Emory University, and then worked on issues of river blindness and other diseases at the Carter Center, then went back to Kenya to work with her mother as part of the Green Belt movement for which Wangari Maathai has won the Nobel Peace Prize We welcome you to Democracy Now! It’s a real privilege to have you here. I know you’re headed out, you’re flying today to join your mother in Kenya as you begin, to say the least, this juggernaut into the actual receiving of the prize. But can you tell us your response when you heard? Where were you?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Actually, I was in Nairobi. I was in Nairobi. It’s a Friday, so my mother usually goes to the constituency to spend the weekend with her constituents. So, I was in Nairobi, you know, going about my business Friday morning. I went to the learning center, which is where I work. And I started getting calls. I got a call at about 11:00 from the B.B.C, saying, "Do you know that Wangari Maathai is one of two on the list nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize." Well, I thought, "Well, nominated, that means great news but, you know, of course not. And you know, as the half hour went on, we got barraged by calls. And by 11:30, I got a call from my mother saying, "We won!" That was really a moment. I cannot — I almost cannot describe it. It was really powerful.

AMY GOODMAN: Where was she?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: She was on her way to—

AMY GOODMAN: In a car?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Yeah, in a car. Going to the constituency; and probably an hour later they may never have been able to reach her, because of the signals out there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, did she turn around and come back?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: No. You know her. She continued. In fact, it was really funny. Many people thought she would, especially the media. They were waiting in Nairobi, which would be the media hub. And she didn’t turn around. She said she had some meetings she had to do, to complete, and she went on. But, of course, as soon as she got into the town, there was, you know, a lot of media obviously. They had all gotten the news, and so she was ushered into a place where she could hear the citation that was given by the Nobel Committee. That was amazing. And, of course, after that, you know, life completely changed — the interviews and the phone calls, and all that. But she still didn’t turn around and go back home. She went and finished the meetings that she had, and then later went back to Nairobi.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us a little bit in terms of the Green Belt Movement that she’s developed. How — Has it spread beyond Kenya to other parts of Africa as well? Is there a network now of environmentalists in Africa that have organized and followed her lead?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: It has. Actually, in 1985, the United Nations’ Environment Programme encouraged the Greenbelt Movement to share that experience and the approach on reforestation which actually, at the core, is community empowerment structure that sort of — you don’t see, but it is what is at the heart of this movement. And so, we’ve shared this approach with most of the countries around us, in East Africa: Uganda, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Mozambique as we go a little bit around. Then a little bit in West Africa, but in West Africa it hasn’t — because we’ve not been able to follow up the countries in the west, as much, we’ve had a lot more success in East Africa. So, we have a few countries that are inspired by the Green Belt Movement. Now, it’s very difficult to actually replicate the movement in — in its form that it is in Kenya. However, when people come and actually spend time with us and understand what the movement is about, they’re inspired and they go back, and in their own way, because they’re already involved in activities, they get — they inject a little bit of Greenbelt Movement energy.

AMY GOODMAN: When I think about a place like Haiti that is so completely deforested and the devastation that has meant, that comes from poverty and people cutting down trees to burn, and to sell, can you talk about how your mother founded this movement, and how it grew, and the kind of political opposition she faced? I mean, she was there for decades under Daniel arap Moi.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Well, she started it in 1977, and sometimes she says the trees were a coincidence, in a way, because she was listening to rural women explain. She was at the time the chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya, and so she got a lot of women in the office telling them — telling her their problems. So, she was listening to issues of food and security. She was listening to lack of fuel. And she thought, well, we can do something about it. You know, we could not — instead of sitting here and listening, let’s do something about it; and not National Council Women of Kenya, but the women themselves who are bringing these issues to the table could get involved in solving them themselves. So, she started using the tree as a symbol, because the tree was a symbol in her mind, an ambassador for what was going to be a transformation of people’s lives, minds, and perspectives. That they themselves could be empowered to change their lives. So she started by using the tree and said, plant a tree. In fact, at the time, the dogma was: If you cut one tree, plant two. So it was to really address the issue of fuel wood. Plant one tree. If you cut the branches, or you cut a tree, plant two to replace them.

AMY GOODMAN: Why women?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Women were certainly most responsive. They were the ones who were suffering the lack of fuel. They were the ones who in Kenya most of the time go out and fetch the firewood. They are the ones who are the caretakers, really, of the home; and so they are the ones who felt the brunt of these problems.

JUAN GONZALEZ: How did the movement develop? Did she organize a committees in every — in every municipality or village or was it basically organized essentially from Nairobi or …?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Actually, it was very much a grassroots organization. So there were organized groups in the community. Five — up to five members formed a group, and it was very systematic so that the community could also learn how to organize themselves and form leadership groups that would then lead them through — through the process. What happened is we had criteria set up, what we called the ten steps. You have ten steps for establishing a Green Belt Movement tree nursery, for example; and they got together, five people could not be from the same household, so essentially it’s five households. So they form a group, and that group then registers with the Ministry of Culture and Social Services, and gives themselves a name, so they have an identity. And then they establish — open a bank account so that they can get cash into the account for some of the seedlings that they would be producing. Then they got assistance in how to establish tree nurseries. But even before all that, they went through a seminar on civic and environmental education. This is what we called the empowerment seminar. Knowing yourself. So, they went through a process that helped them connect the environment, poverty, and some of the challenges or problems that they were having. So that they could understand that those problems were not being brought by somebody else, that a lot of the activities they themselves were involved in brought about some of these problems. So, what are your preparations right now, Wanjiri Maathai? You go back to Kenya. You’ll rejoin your mother. How do you plan to prepare for the attention, for the trip? You will be going to Stockholm?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Actually Oslo. Actually, as I speak, I know there is a lot going in Nairobi, so I’m rushing to go back and be part of that preparation. But I know that there will be a lot of strategizing, trying to understand what the media strategy will be, what the communications strategy will be. So there’s a lot of deliberate work to be done prior to December 10th, but a lot of great people with us, so we’re up to it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Wanjiri Maathai, is the daughter of Wangari Maathai, and she herself is the international liaison for the Greenbelt Movement. Do you plan like your mother to dedicate your life to this movement?

WANJIRA MAATHAI: I don’t know. I cannot say yes, but here I am. I’m in it, so I can’t tell you what else.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you very much Wanjira.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!

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