When Wangari Maathai suggested to women in her village that they should plant trees for fire wood and to stop soil erosion, she had no idea that this simple act of planting trees would eventually garner her the Nobel Peace Prize. The Takeaway is joined by Wangari Maathai Nobel Prize winning activist, founder of the Greenbelt Movement, and author of the new book, The Challenge for Africa, about her vision for the future. Her life is subject of the documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, which premiered on the PBS series Independent Lens this week.
Femi Oke: Lately it seems that everybody has an opinion on how to deal with the problems facing Africa: poverty, disease and political turmoil. They’re all pitching in. But how many people have solutions that actually work? Dr. Wangari Maathai, she’s a Nobel Peace Prize winning activist and founder of the Green Belt Movement, which taught women how to plant plenty of trees all over Kenya. She chose to focus on deforestation in Africa. She started in Kenya and you could say she started a green revolution and she was the commander of that revolution. I want you to have a listen to Dr. Maathai taking on the authorities in Kenya. She’s fierce.
Recording of Dr. Maathai: We want honesty! We want justice! If we are going to shed blood because of our land, we will! We are used to that. Our forefathers shed blood for land! We will do so. This is my blood.
Femi Oke: Good morning, Dr. Troublemaker. Take us back to that scene. When was it? Where was it? What was happening?
Wangari Maathai: [Laughs] That scene was at Karuru Forest. For those who know Nairobi, it’s a forest that kind of encircles Nairobi, or forms a semicircle around Nairobi. It’s a very old forest. It’s a forest that always separated the savannahs from the highlands. And it is a very, very important part of Nairobi, it freshens the air of Nairobi. It’s a very important part of a clean and healthy environment for Nairobians.
Femi Oke: Anybody who is African or who knows anything about Africa will know you because you’re the first Nobel laureate from the African continent. The first female Nobel laureate. So you’re extremely famous. But there are people out there who don’t know your work, and a good introduction is a film coming out on PBS and that’s on April 14. It’s called Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai. It premiers next week. How long did it actually take you to film that documentary?
Wangari Maathai: I want to pay tribute to Alan and Lisa, a couple from Vermont who actually tried very, very hard to capture the story for almost five years. They started before the price and had to start all over again over the price. They really paid a lot of attention to the story and tried to understand the story behind the story. I think they’ve done justice and will help people to understand the many challenges that people face in Africa.
Femi Oke: I just want to emphasize that you are a huge celebrity and you get followed around all over the world and people come up to you and hug you. Ibrahim [Abdul-Matin, The Takeaway sports blogger] was just shaking your hand, he was honored to meet you. How does it feel, then, to take all of that adoration on and then see it in a documentary? How comfortable were you with what they put together?
Wangari Maathai: Well I’m quite comfortable to talk about my experiences and narrate this story, but sometimes it is uncomfortable looking at a film and looking at myself. That I’m not used to.
Femi Oke: You also have a book out, so you’re seriously doing some branding for yourself here. The book is called The Challenge for Africa. A lot of people talking about Africa, how do we fix Africa, what is different about your angle that you’re taking?
Wangari Maathai: I have a special angle because, first of all, I’m an African. I have been in Africa working at a grassroots level, working with the people and trying to face these challenges, and the book is a reflection of how I have tried to understand these challenges and deal with them, and to a certain extent offer suggestion on what I think we should be doing in order to help Africa get out of the stereotype that we now have around the world of poverty, underdevelopment and such.
Femi Oke: I’ve got the book here, and it’s — let me just go through it because I was reading it the other day — it is over 300 pages long. So it’s going to be mean of me to be specific about challenges. Everyone talks about challenges, African solutions, blah, blah, blah, but you’re a bit more specific, where do you think that Africans can actually fix Africa?
Wangari Maathai: Some of the issues I raise that I usually don’t discuss, the issue is tribe, which in this book I refer to as micro-nationality. We need to recognize that we are micro-nations, that what we refer to as tribes are micro-nations, that we need to accept each other, we need to understand each other. We are not one, we cannot meld overnight, but we need to embrace each other then work towards accepting that we have to create a state. We need to accept that the states we now have are a superficial state created by superpowers about 100 years ago, not by the African people. And part of the problems that we are still dealing with is because of that superficiality of the state and the fact that we see ourselves as micro nations so that our loyalty is toward that micro nation rather than toward the big nation. That is one issue that I think is new and is often overlooked. The other issue that I raise is the issue of culture. And I say, is culture the missing link? Because Africans, when they were colonized, some of them were really brutally colonized. Their culture was destroyed, it was trivialized it was demonized, and as a result they come out of that experience cultureless, without values of their own, without traditional values they can reflect on.
Femi Oke: And Dr. Maathai, you describe culture as being wisdom. So culture is more than just your food, your music, your dancing, it’s wisdom. Now let me get on to your book in terms of a more practical sense. I’m feeling it here and I’m looking at it and it looks like it’s recycled paper.
Wangari Maathai: Precisely. And because we are environmentalists we also embrace the concept of reuse, reduce, recycle. So we are very conscious of the fact that we want to protect the environment. We especially want to protect our trees. So we asked our publisher, Pantheon, if they could come up with recycled paper, and they did! Thank you very much.
Femi Oke: It’s all about you in the next couple weeks. We’ve got April 14, which is when Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is out. That’s all about your background, your history. Your book is coming out on April 14 as well. Do you feel this pressure to keep producing material all of the time?
Wangari Maathai: Well I think in many ways this is a wonderful coincidence.
Femi Oke: Really? No…
Wangari Maathai: The two projects have been running parallel. As I said the film has been going on for the last five years. And it just happened that the film was ready, the book was ready and both of them came out at about the same time and so I came here to the United States in order to participate in the launching and encourage people to read. I think that people who want to understand Africa, want to understand some of the challenges we’re facing, need to read this book.
Femi Oke: That’s a pitch and a half. We do have one question in from a listener. It’s from a Femi in Brooklyn and she wants to ask you, Dr. Maathai, will you adopt her?
Wangari Maathai: Well, I guess we need to talk about that.
Femi Oke: I know adoptions are banned for foreigners in Malawi, but perhaps in Kenya they will still adopt a 40-something year old.
Wangari Maathai: In Kenya we do, we will certainly adopt you. Come with me today!