African Woman Extraordinaire

African Woman Extraordinaire

Nobel Laureate Visits Upper Midwest

For Dr. Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner and the first woman from Africa to win it, a life of environmental curiosity and later activism began during the East Coast fever epidemic in Kenya. It is a fatal disease that afflicts cattle caused by ticks and characterized by intense fever, labored breathing, a generalized weakness and emaciation of the affected cattle.

She was working at the University of Nairobi in the veterinary department, part of the team that was working to solve the problem. While observing the tick that was the vector in transmitting the disease, she came up close with the environmental degradation that was taking place. As a scientist she became aware, on a personal level, of the cost of damaging existing eco-systems and the consequences thereof.

In the early seventies having earned a Masters at the time in Biological Sciences Maathai was the only woman teaching in the sciences at the University of Nairobi. Beside Dr. Maathai, there were only two other females in the faculty. Kenyan Association of University Women (KAUW) started campaigning for equal pay and rights of the women teachers and this led Maathai to represent them at the 1975 Mexico UN Women’s Conference. While at the conference Wangari Maathai met with other Kenyan women from all levels of society. She was made aware of the four main concerns of women at the grassroots level namely, firewood, water, poverty, and vulnerability.

The scientist in Wangari Maathai paid more attention to what were the root causes of these problems and she deduced that change of land use and land use management were the culprits. The land was cleared for cash crop cultivation such as coffee and tea which led to loss of sources of firewood; because of agro-chemicals and bad farming methods water sources were either contaminated or no longer available; cash crop farming involved payments going directly to husbands’ bank accounts.

This arrangement led to poverty and vulnerability on the part of the women. This inspired Maathai to start teaching the women to plant trees so the earth could repair itself and thereafter offer sources of food, shelter and security.

This was the message Dr. Maathai brought to the upper Midwest in March. She was one of the keynote speakers at the 18th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum – which is the Norwegian Nobel Institute’s only such program or academic affiliation outside Norway. The forum was held at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa on March 10-11. This year’s Forum theme was Striving for Peace: Sustaining the planet. The focus of this year’s forum was to honor the work of Dr. Wangari Maathai and her message the threat to peace that is posed by scientific, political, and economic aspects of environmental degradation. Also present at the Forum was the Executive Director of the Norwegian Noble Institute, Dr. Geir Lundestad and the Ambassador of Norway to the United States, the Honorable Knut Vollebaek.

During conversations about governance and the role of governments in taking responsible environmental action Prof. Maathai cautioned that individuals should not feel helpless or hopeless when they feel their government’s policies are not environment friendly. Signing a treaty is not enough. Some countries are quick to sign and ratify agreements but take little or no action to put into effect or enforce them. “Every country can take action, and so can every individual.” Every individual can do their part in the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse and Recycle). The United States and Australia did not sign the Kyoto Protocol in Japan, but this does not prevent millions of their citizens from subscribing to environmental efforts and doing the 3Rs. It is the action of individual citizens that is important. “The world belongs to all not just to Presidents and Ministers.”

Maathai gave an example of Japan a consumer culture that is incorporating an age old Buddhist belief of Mot Tai Nai in its environmental policies. Japan is a mega consumer only using and consuming from other countries what she doesn’t have or produce. Mot Tai Nai is the concept of the 3Rs but has another aspect that is difficult to translate but roughly means being grateful for what you have, receiving it with respect. This concept is still embedded in the older Japanese generation but is not the case among the younger generation that has grown up in a period of prosperity. The individual philosophy of Mot Tai Nai is helping reduce their negative impact on environment. Japan has even taking further steps in recycling plastic to create computer parts, synthetic silk items like the traditional furoshiki cloth, which is made from recycled plastic and even modern materials for men’s suits.

What keeps her going? The Green Belt Movement founder shared a story that she heard that helps her sustain her energy and helps her not feel overwhelmed. One day a big forest fire had all the animals, birds and reptiles running away. All except one – the hummingbird. The little hummingbird kept going back to the fire, she would fly to the stream pick a drop of water in her beak and take it back to douse the fire. From a safe distance the other animals stood and watched, soon they started laughing at her, those who were kinder tried to discourage her “what can you do with your one drop of water?” The humming bird didn’t answer and just continued her task back and forth. Finally she answered her discouragers (some of whom, like the pelican, could have carried a lot more water than the little hummingbird), “I am doing the best I can.”

Pan African Green Belt Network

She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctoral degree. In 2004 she also became the first African from the vast area between South Africa and Egypt to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as well as being the first woman from Africa to receive such an honor. Her efforts founded the Green Belt Movement that has mobilized women to plant more than 30 million trees on a grassroots level around Kenya. Maathai’s efforts have been adopted by other countries through a Pan African Green Belt Network.

Currently Maathai duties also include being Ambassador of Goodwill for the Congo Forest Region, and mobilizing the civil society of Africa by helping the African Union form the African Civil Society Parliament. This parliament will consist of two representatives from the 53 countries.

Partisanship and the Environment

A second plenary address was given by Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey (1994-2001)and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Secretary (2001-2003)  in the Bush administration. Her speech was titled “The Capability of Politics in the United States Today to Address Hard Environmental Problems”. In her speech Whitman called attention to the partisan climate currently prevailing in Washington that has made it difficult to legislate substantive environmental laws.

However she was optimistic that even in the absence of mandated action businesses are complying with EPA standards and making positive changes environmentally. “Economic development and environmental progress can and must exist together”. She stressed that consistent legal regulations were needed but these changes will only occur when the people make their concerns clear to the politicians and decision makers in Washington D.C. Politicians act on the issues that concern the electorate and polls have shown that the environment polls very low as a priority among the public which said needs to change.

In responding to a question from the audience on the role media could play in promoting environmental issues, Whitman stated that “individuals have to make the change because the papers give what the public wants.” The central theme throughout the two day forum was exploring the importance of grassroots development and the difference individual citizens can make in creating a more just and sustainable planet.

Passing the Torch

The final plenary address from Luther alumnus, Dr Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota was titled “The Role of the Scientist in the Making of Policy”.  Dr Osterholm reiterated the important role individuals play in impacting the world. Osterholm is an internationally recognized expert in epidemiology and public policy, bioterrorism and public health preparedness. Recently he was a featured guest on the television show Oprah, discussing the bird-flu threat. Osterholm urged the audience at the end of his speech to “Be involved. We need an informed public.” He stated that his personal measures of success are his students, “The single most important thing is passing the torch.” 

The Forum ended in the same way it had opened, with a ceremony featuring a theatre/dance performance ,Shall We Gather. The opening performance portrayed people coming together and their actions although seemingly productive (i.e. fetching firewood, clearing the land for planting crops, using lumber for building/furniture) were destroying the earth. It showed one person mourning the destruction and trying to fix it, she was later joined by two others. Taja Will a music major sophomore wrote the music and arranged the choreography. Mshale spoke to her and another student performer Justin Zeigler, a junior majoring in theatre dance about the closing performance and what they were trying to express. The ending performance showed people coming together to heal the earth, and others watching and learning and then each leaving after replacing a “tree” and according to Taja it meant to show that “even as we [forum participants] leave we shall still gather in other places and share the knowledge.”

Peace Jam

Leaving Iowa, Dr. Maathai traveled to the Twin Cities where she led a PeaceJam Youth Conference comprised of Upper Midwest youth on Sunday, March 12 at the University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul. PeaceJam is an international education program built around leading Nobel Peace Laureates who work personally with youth to pass on the spirit, skills, and wisdom they embody. This event was only open to the youth.

A sold out public event that PeaceJam also hosted was addressed by Dr. Maathai. She stressed the importance of starting small to effect the change that is needed. She told the audience that the world must rethink the concept of peace. By consciously managing our resources better and following democratic principles, the world is more likely to live at peace with each other.

Dr. Maathai also stressed the importance of ensuring the equitable distribution of resources “not equal distribution, as I know that is not possible but EQUITABLE”, she said.

Special Meeting

Dr. Maathai used her lunch break from the PeaceJam conference in Saint Paul to dash to the Cowles Auditorium at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs to meet with Kenyans and their friends in Minnesota. The event was hosted jointly by the Kenya Welfare Association of Minnesota and Mshale Newspaper.

Her entrance into the University of Minnesota’s Cowles Auditorium was greeted with ululation from some Kenyan women and cheers from the rest of the audience.  Smiling and saying thank-you, Prof. Maathai worked her way down to the podium. The admiration and awe on the faces of the regrettably small audience was obvious.

Dr. Njoki Kamau was equally jubilant in her introduction of Prof. Maathai, “I remember Prof. Maathai coming to our school in the 70s and telling us to water our trees and our education!” she remarked. Dr. Kamau is Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Women’s Studies at the Duluth campus.

For many Kenyans, Prof. Maathai is mostly remembered for her relentless struggles against the regime of Kenya’s former president, Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi. In 1989 she challenged Moi’s decision to build a 60-storey structure in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park; as a result the building was never constructed. In 1990 at Freedom Corner in the same Uhuru Park Prof. Maathai accompanied other women in demanding the release of their sons who had been unfairly taken as political prisoners. When the police (who were as young as their sons) confronted them and started beating them, they stripped naked which in African terms is tantamount to a curse.

Ironically, today she finds herself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the government of Mwai Kibaki. Late last year she turned down an appointment as Environment Assistant Minister following a cabinet reshuffle after current president Mwai Kibaki’s team, lost the referendum vote on the constitution to the Orange Democratic Movement (ODM).  This leaves her in an awkward position being that she occupied the post before the reshuffle and no one has replaced her to date; she explains that she is essentially a minister who has not taken her oath and this has never happened before so no one really knows how to go about the situation. Her reasons for declining the offer were not as superficial as the politics of the constitutional review and the dismissal of ODM ministers. “I like to deal with the ‘root’ causes – that’s why I plant trees,” she joked.
On a serious note, she stated that the president’s failure to honor the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) which advocated for equal sharing of power for all the parties in the opposition alliance, NARC, should they come into power in 2002 was the root cause of Kenya’s political instability and eventually exploded at the referendum. “It is important that we stay on track so that we do not frustrate the confidence and hope Kenyans invested in the 2002 elections, she said.” In response to a question as to whether she would be ready to run for president of Kenya, she replied that she has been ready since ten years ago when she unsuccessfully tried to run against then president Moi. She also encouraged women to join politics so that they don’t complain from the outside, but go in and effect change. For now however, she hasn’t set a date to take the oath as the Environment because she wants to be a constant reminder that the Kenyan government is on the wrong path.
Nonetheless it is unfair not to recognize the positive strides of the government she added. Since the government allocated 3% of revenue to the constituencies, citizens have more say in development in their areas. She also reminded everyone that the fact that Kenyans can hound ministers on corruption as they are doing today, is because of the democratic space allowed by the new government.

Though many of the questions from the audience revolved around Professor Maathai’s political life and insights, she is above all, a passionate environmentalist. She admits that Kenya has a good environmental policy on paper, but implementation is wanting and lack of funding means that extension services to farmers are not available. “With all conflicts there is an underlying problem of resources and the world needs to rethink security and peace,” she said. She added that Africa cannot have peace without equity and ardently advocated for a stronger civil society to check excesses of governments. She pointed out the irony of people going to war over small pieces of land when desertification is taking inches of our soil every day and no one lifts a brow. “We have eyes, but we do not see!” she lamented.
In spite of the numerous responsibilities she currently holds, Professor Maathai did not pass up the invitations to be Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Forest and the first chair the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOC). Much needs to be done soon in Africa, which has an abundance of natural resources that are at risk of disappearing and through these positions she believes will be better situated to work with Africans to create a sustainable and secure environment.

Peace Prize Festival Rescheduled

A snow storm in the Twin Cities on March 13 led to the cancellation of the 11th Annual Nobel peace Prize Festival that was to be held at Augsburg College in Minneapolis. The event which is geared words elementary school children was to be graced by the presence of Dr. Maathai. Most schools in the metro cancelled classes prompting festival organizers to call it off. This was to be Dr. Maathai’s last engagement in the Twin Cities.

Festival organizers told Mshale the event will be rescheduled. Rescheduled date and details will be posted at . Mshale publisher, Tom Gitaa, said readers who have signed up for Mshale’s mailing list at will also be notified once the new date is set.

Interview on ABN-America

While in the Twin Cities, Dr. Maathai did a special interview on ABN-America’s Talking Drum show which is hosted by Tom Gitaa of Mshale. The show will air on April 20 at 8:00 P.M. CST with a rebroadcast on Sunday, April 23 at the same time according to ABN’s Vice-president of Programming, Mr. Lamin Dibba.

ABN-America is headquartered in Saint Paul, Minnesota and is available nationwide via satellite on the Dish Network Channel 749.

After leaving the Twin Cities, Dr. Maathai had speaking engagements in various US cities such as Seattle and Atlanta before flying back to Kenya.


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