A conversation with Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of Unbowed
Why did you decide to write a memoir at this point in
your life? Was it something you knew all along you would do at some point in
Writing my memoirs was a response to the many questions I continue to be asked about sharing my life, work and experiences, especially after the prize. Although I had thought about writing it before, I kept postponing it. At first I worked on a book that focused on the work and experience of GBM entitled "The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Experience & the Approach". Through the questions people asked me, I realized they were interested in knowing why and how I started the movement, what inspired me, what my background was and what sustained my interest. The Nobel Peace Prize allowed me to reflect even more on these questions.
What were some of the challenges in the writing process? It must not be an easy task to remember and retell (so clearly) all those events that took place in your life and your country's history.
Time was the biggest challenge in the process. I worked on this project even as I continued all my other activities in addition to responding to the new interest in our work generated by the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of travel was necessitated and all of a sudden my workload significantly increased. I however felt it was the right time to work on the project. It is not easy to forget events that shape your personality, psyche and values. These memories are constantly being tapped in the course of your life to define who we are. The writing process was also facilitated by the help I received from many sourcesfamily, friends, supporters - just as I have throughout my life.
This book is so much more than a story of your life, which memoirs usually are. In fact, it is through your story that we learn a great deal about your country and Africa in general. Therein, in my opinion, lies its strength. Was this your intention?
Not really. But it would have been difficult to convey the experiences of my life without unraveling the historical and political context within which my life was unfolding. These realities shaped and created who I became. I hope when people read my book they will identify their own experiences in my life's journey and will be encouraged to embrace and make the best of theirs. I also hope it will help in their understanding of Africans experiences. Many Africans grew up in the colonial and post-colonial period and this book may help others understand how that experience shaped who we are today.
You devote a chapter to your experience living and studying in the United States in the late 1960s and explain how it transformed you as a person. What were some of the things about America and its people that inspired you to care about the world as much as you do? Also, do you feel any different today in light of America's often-criticized foreign policy?
America represents many things to different people. For me, its diversity, economic influence, expansiveness, beauty, endurance and its ability to nurture and neglect at the same time are some of the characteristics of the United States that made a permanent impact on my mind. So were events such as civil rights movement, the Kennedy presidency and the American college experience.
I remember my time in America and the people I met with great affection. I feel I carried its energy and confidence back with me to Kenya, and that helped me in my efforts to make changes in my own country. America still has that energy and drive, and has the capacity, especially because of the commitment of its people, to promote greater peace and harmony in the world.
You say at one point that poverty in Africa and other parts of the world is not only the result of bad governance but also an outcome of the global economic system. What more can be done to correct this, and not only by those with power and influence but also by the average person who simply wants to make a difference? As you say, "it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them."
The leadership in Africa can do a lot and indeed there has been some progress.
Globally, politics notwithstanding, Africa can do with more genuine friends both at the bilateral level and within global institutions such as WTO and Bretton Woods Institutions among others. With greater understanding, individual citizens can do a lot to push their governments to be more responsible and accountable beyond their borders. Those of us with influence (e.g. academic, political, celebrities etc) can do a lot to influence policy both locally at the global level.
The Green Belt Movement, which you founded in 1977, is going strong after so many years. Can you briefly discuss its mission and future goals?
create a value-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner Kenya. Looking forward, the GBM is working to facilitate the sharing of the GBM experience with the rest of the world. As an African grass roots organization that has demonstrated the success of its holistic approach to the interrelated problems of environmental degradation, poverty and women's rights, and governance, we have established The Green Belt Movement International (www.greenbeltmovement.org) to ensure that the work of the GBM in Kenya expands and is sustained, facilitate the sharing of the work with other parts of Africa and beyond, to institutionalize the work and experiences of GBM so future generations can continue to learn and be empowered by this example and to continue to support important global campaigns and struggles that represent the linkage between the environment, democracy and peace, such as the Congo Forest Basin Ecosystem and The African Union's ECOSOCC.
You spend a great deal of time in your book discussing the importance of education, which is "a ticket out" of poverty in many parts of the world. But you also say that education, "if it means anything, should not take people away from the land." Is this still happening? Aren't educated people much more environmentally aware today than in the not-so-distant past, or is there still much more to be done. What are your thoughts on this?
At least in Africa where people's livelihoods were dependent on primary natural resources like (land, soil, water, forests) and where, due to lack of advanced technology, labor was intensive, education was perceived to be a gateway to light work which led to a better quality of life. Running away from the rural landscapes became a goal for the educated and the governing elite. That is what I mean by saying education should not alienate us from the primary natural resources. When we do get alienated, not only do we destroy those resources and thereby undermine our quality of life, but we also become insensitive to their destruction. Therefore, education is important but it must be an education that ensures we are not alienated from the resources upon which our survival depends.
What achievement are you most proud of and why? Winning Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 is probably at the top of that list. Congratulations on that.
My most important achievement is having been fortunate enough not to have lost my focus despite the many distractions along the way. I also most proud of my 3 children and the extended family, which never failed to encourage me.
What's next in store for you?
Being a Peace Laureate means that I am now a permanent ambassador for Peace wherever I go. It's a wonderful responsibility. It entails sharing my work, inspiration, my thoughts on peace, democracy and sustainable management of resources. I have already been requested by several African Heads of States to serve as goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. The African Union has also asked me to assist in mobilizing civil society in Africa towards the formation of a common forum to promote unity and better management of African affairs. In Kenya, I enjoy representing grassroots people in parliament. It helps me not to lose sight of the real issues that affect a majority of the African people and indeed much of the developing world. It would be otherwise easier to escape into an ivory tower. So, I have a lot to do! in addition to serving my country these new responsibilities will keep me busy for many years to come.
More about the Green Belt Movement
What is the Green Belt Movement?
The Green Belt Movement is one of the most prominent women's civil society organizations, based in Kenya, advocating for human rights and supporting good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. Its mission is to empower communities worldwide to protect the environment and to promote good governance and cultures of peace.
How It All Started?
The Green Belt Movement (GBM) was started in 1977 by Dr. Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004). What began as a grassroots tree planting program to address the challenges of deforestation, soil erosion and lack of water is now a vehicle for empowering women. The act of planting a tree is helping women throughout Africa become stewards of the natural environment.
But that's just the first step.
By protecting the environment, these women are also becoming powerful champions for sustainable management of scarce resources such as water, equitable economic development, good political governance, and ultimately .. peace.
Today, more than 40 million trees have been planted across Africa. The result: soil erosion has been reduced in critical watersheds, thousands of acres of biodiversity-rich indigenous forest have been restored and protected, and hundreds of thousands of women and their families are standing up for their rights and those of their communities and so are living healthier, more productive lives.
Yet, so much remains to be done. Forests are still being lost, democracy is fragile, and poverty is still widespread.
Our Vision for the Future
Our goal in the next decade is to plant 1 billion trees worldwide. A healthy natural world is at the heart of an equitable and peaceful society. And protecting the environment is something every individual can take part in.
For More Information, visit greenbeltmovement.org.
Or contact Carrie Collins (301) 664-9000, ccollins@BCC-Associates.com
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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