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Kenya: a shining example.

On 8 October, Professor Wangari Maathai, the endearing environmental activist and campaigner, and currently Kenya's deputy environment minister, became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In announcing the decision, the Nobel committee in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, said the award had been given to Maathai in acknowledgment of her "holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights ... [and] promoting ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa". On 15 June this year, Maathai also won the Sofie Prize in Oslo, a $100,000 award established to inspire people working towards a sustainable future. In the past, Maathai's beliefs had landed her in trouble with the authorities in Kenya and been a cause for constant antagonism in a patriarchal society. Now, in her moment of triumph, eulogies are being sung for her by friend and foe alike. For something different, New African has gone back into our archives, to reproduce an interview we did with Maathai in December 1991 (13 long years ago) headlined "Wangari Maathai--The Forest Queen". Even in those days, she was miles ahead of her contemporaries. Eugenia Abu interviewed her in London. This is what we published.


She smiles warmly when she meets you for the first time, a flutter of ivory white teeth against a bold black complexion. Then she rises to greet you with a handshake like an old friend. Habariyako, she says softly in Swahili. It's difficult to imagine this tall, warm lady as the formidable and outspoken Kenyan environmentalist.


ProfWangari Maathai, Africa's foremost environmentalist takes a 10-minute break before meeting the next set of journalists. On her return, you find although there were to be five of you, only two have turned up, so you make the most of your chance. Is she concerned about issues beyond the environment? Culture, perhaps?

"I feel alienated because the African culture is no longer there in the true sense of the word," Maathai says. "Most of us, at least in East Africa, have been exposed more to Western culture. We deliberately go looking for our own culture, yet most of us still reflect Western culture."

Maathai does not believe that everything in Christianity must be believed. The concept of "heaven", for example, carries a very Western image. In her Kikuyu tradition, when people die "their spirit might hover about". She is more comfortable with that belief than the Western idea of "white soldiers" (or angels).

Although Kenya and most of East Africa speak Swahili, Maathai is not convinced that enough has been done in the area of cultural awakening through language. Swahili, she believes, has not been sufficiently indigenised by Kenyans to make it more functional. She admires the Tanzanian indigenisation of Swahili and believes that unless Swahili is treated with pride and conviction, that it is "our language", it will continue to be seen as foreign by speakers of other indigenous tongues in Kenya.

"To show that we are sophisticated," she says, "we speak English. The elite have that complex, so we will continue to promote European languages."

A strong believer in community radio, Maathai sees it as a medium for people to communicate in their own mother tongue, a language in which they feel comfortable and less inadequate. "It is tragic to pretend that we [Africans] can develop without an indigenous language. The Japanese will not have been this successful with a foreign language," she adds.

We return to women. Are African women marginalised?

Maathai startles with her dissenting views. As far as she is concerned, even men are marginalised. Government is all too often an imposition on the people and she feels strongly that it is a misconception to say women are not in the mainstream.

She would rather women took charge of their lives instead of becoming part of a mainstream that may not perform adequately or which does not give ordinary people participatory power. She adds: "Women who are within government see it as a privilege to be among men and, therefore, do not want to rock the boat."

She had words too for African men: "Men are given the illusion that they are in control. If they are in control and Africa is doing badly, then they are useless."

Since 1977, Maathai has devoted her life to the care of the environment. Her great concern is to pass on the lessons of sustainable development to ordinary people who may not know what the ozone layer is all about, but who nonetheless are affected by decisions taken by international organisations.

Maathai has said she is not interested in politics, yet she speaks daily on issues of African politics. She chastises African leaders who are unaccountable to their people and urges Africans to reject development policies that will further degenerate the environment.

Her politics go beyond the confines of Africa. She takes on aid agencies who sell ill-conceived development projects. She speaks emotionally about international trade policies which fix buying and selling prices to the advantage of the rich countries.

She is upset that in attempting to fit into world trade patterns dictated by the West, Africa is unable to feed itself. She dwelt extensively on this issue at the Hunger Project award ceremony in London recently, of which she is a co-laurette with Nigeria's first lady, Mrs Maryam Babangida.

With politics this divergent and this broad, she goes beyond the environment, yet she claims not to be a politician or have ambition of becoming one. Is this reconcilable?

"It may appear like I am political because I criticise politicians," she says. "But the environment and development are interlinked. I don't have political ambitions. I am working for the environment."

She does not believe that it is possible to talk about the environment without talking about poverty in Africa, the debt problem and the pricing system for world trade.

As the Earth Summit planned for Rio in June 1992 approaches, Maathai contends that a successful summit would and should look at debt "seriously" and "openly". The guilty people should be brought to book in Africa. Investigations into the pillaging of Africa by governments should be put on the agenda while rich countries should be made to address the pricing system of world trade.

"This is our planet, we need to save it for all of us, not to save it for industrialised countries," she says. "The South cannot take steps to protect the environment while the North sits back and continues its same lifestyle of over-consumption and continues to destroy the environment." One can see a glint in her eyes as she speaks about the environment.


Maathai calls on educated African elites to get their people out of poverty. She describes attitudes of some African elites as that of "personal gratification".

"If we continue to form an elite club to exploit Africans, then we are no better than the world which colonised us," she adds.

Maathai is in a club all of her own. In her bag are: The Right Livelihood award. The Better World award. The UNEP Global 500 award. The Windstar award, and recently, she was a co-winner of the Africa Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger.

One is breathless from talking to Maathai. Her beliefs are steely.

In the same issue of December 1991, New African published a side-by on Maathai, headed "Wangari Maathai--Africa's Green Lady". This is what we said:

Professor Wangari Maathai has become Africa's top environmentalist. The founder of Kenya's Green Belt Movement, she is now being overwhelmed with international awards. The latest is the African Prize for Leadership for the Sustainable End of Hunger, which she shared with Nigeria's first lady, Maryam Babangida. But she has won other awards too, including that of the Goldman Environmentalists.

She is a green prophet not without honour, except perhaps in her own country where she is a positive thorn in the flesh of the government. The most memorable of her battles was in 1989 when she almost single-handedly waged a spirited campaign against the construction of a 60-storey Kenya Times media complex in Uhuru Park in Nairobi.

She thought the Park should be retained for the delectation of the people of Nairobi. Almost all Kenyan politicians thought otherwise and subjected her to intense pressure, but she won the day, only for the government to evict her Green Belt Movement from its offices in Moi Avenue.

Now she is campaigning with the Jeevanjee family to prevent an underground car park being built in Jeevanjee Gardens, another oasis in the centre of Nairobi. She wants a proper public enquiry to be held before the Nairobi city commission starts its project, so ordinary citizens can air their views and raise objections.

Future generations of Kenyans will undoubtedly honour her for raising the banner of environmentalism against short-term expediency.
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Title Annotation:Around Africa
Author:Abu, Eugenia
Publication:New African
Article Type:Interview
Date:Nov 1, 2004
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