by Dave Gilson
Introduction to the interview:
In October, Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is the latest distinction in a 30-year career that’s been defined as much by Maathai’s accomplishments as the controversies she has sparked. After studying in the United States in the early 1960s, Maathai returned home to become the first East African woman to earn a PhD. Shortly afterwards, her parliamentarian husband initiated a messy divorce. She fought back by quitting her university deanship to run against him for his seat. Though she lost the race, she’d found her calling as a fiercely outspoken activist. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental group that restored indigenous forests and assisted rural women by paying them to plant trees in their communities. It has since planted over 30 million trees in Kenya, provided work for tens of thousands of women, and been replicated in dozens of other African countries.
What made Maathai’s movement remarkable, and would eventually attract the attention of the Nobel committee, was how it erased the distinctions between environmentalism, feminism, democratization, and human rights advocacy. Maathai saw a direct connection between problems such as deforestation and soil erosion and the failures of Kenya’s one-party state. “I got pulled deeper and deeper and saw how these issues become linked to governance, to corruption, to dictatorship,” she says. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, she boldly confronted the country’s ruling party and its autocratic president, Daniel Arap Moi. In their most visible showdown, Maathai led a successful campaign against Moi’s plan to build a 62-story party headquarters, complete with a larger-than-life statue of himself, in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Though her objections were largely environmental -- the park was one of the city’s few open green spaces -- it was clear that she also sought to humble a “Big Man” who was not used to being defied, especially by a woman.
Moi and his allies vilified Maathai as an overeducated, man-hating subversive. She received death threats, was arrested more than a dozen times, and once was beaten unconscious by police. Several of her colleagues were killed and the Green Belt Movement was nearly outlawed. In the early 1990s, while the government fomented a wave of violence against opposition figures and the ethnic groups believed to be supporting them, Maathai went in and out of hiding. Her public appearances, like the one I tried to attend in March 1993, were often broken up by police. Maathai recalls this period with characteristic equanimity, maintaining she was never demoralized. “I knew in my mind I was doing the right thing,” she says.
Indeed, during the past two years, Maathai has been vindicated. In December 2002, Moi stepped down and Kenya held its first democratic elections. The opposition swept to power in a landslide; Maathai was elected to parliament and was appointed assistant secretary for Environment, Wildlife, and Natural Resources. The Nobel Prize, she says, is further confirmation that Kenya is finally on the right path. The prize is also a tribute to the 64-year old’s impact not simply as an environmentalist and activist, but as a role model for a generation of Kenyans who are enjoying the fruits of her labor. After the award was announced, she recalls, “Young people, especially girls, came up to me with tears in their eyes, saying how happy they were and how inspired they were.”
Wangari Maathai spoke to MotherJones.com from New York, where she had started a short visit to the U.S. to celebrate her Nobel and promote her new book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience.