Update 26th September 2011: Prof Wangari Maathai died last night at Nairobi Hospital after a long battle with cancer. R.I.P. This was Wangari Maathai’s last public interview conducted by Carol Odero of Drum Magazine in July 2011.
Drum Magazine – August 2011
Life on the Green Side. AN ACTIVE AND PUBLIC LIFE, ONE OR TWO REGRETS, AND MANY PEARLS OF WISDOM COMING FROM YEARS OF RICH EXPERIENCE THAT’S PROF WANGARI MAATHAI
When I finally meet Prof Wangari Maathai, my first thought is that she looks smaller. She’s slighter than I expected, unlike the robust image that came through when the world saw her with Oprah Winfrey. And that engaging smile has become rare. It is now seven years since she won the Nobel Peace Prize, valued at Kshs 100 million at the time. It was a feat that made her something of a cliche – the prophet who is not celebrated at home yet elsewhere her work has made quite an impact. “Winning the Nobel was a gift, it recognised us (the Green Belt Movement) in a way that we never thought we could be recognised. It catapulted us onto a global stage.”
The result was that she got to travel the world, sharing her experiences and talking about the need for protecting forests and environments, and for governments, specifically ours, to understand the connection between that and the availability (or lack) of food.
This is made more pertinent in the face of the persisting drought that is being touted as the worst in the last 60 years. Prof Maathai points out that “if you live in an environment and you allow it to be taken away, then sooner or later you will die of starvation because it is unable to produce enough food. If you destroy forests, sooner or later your rivers will dry up and if we do not make these connections then the result is a tragedy that our university degrees cannot avert at that point. It is unfortunate that we have the knowledge but fail to make this connection and take the necessary steps.”
For the stand she has taken as an activist, Prof Maathai has been harassed, arrested, tear-gassed, roughed up, scorned and ignored. Right up until she received the Nobel Prize, Kenyans weren’t really interested in what she did; now she is an icon, a celebrated heroine and ‘green warrior’ whose very presence has become synonymous with Kenya.
She has been an academician and even had a stint in Parliament as an assistant minister, a position she retired from. “My personal feeling about the position of assistant ministers in this country is that it is a waste of money. This is something I have continued to express even long after I left. They are supposed to assist ministers, but ministers can decide not to be assisted. And so you become an irrelevant individual and if you are like me, a person who has been very involved and keen to get into government and do the right thing for the environment, you get very frustrated. You have a big office and all these allowances in an already bloated government yet you know you’re not doing much. I think the position should be abolished. It is just a political tool created to please communities that feel sidelined rather than provide real service.’
Anyone who knows Prof Maathai knows she is outspoken, articulate and not afraid to step up when the need arises. She has had altercations with the government since the 1970s and has taken the time to document her life story in a memoir, Unbowed; an apt title if ever there was one, communicating everything there is to be known about her as a woman. In it she talks about being a mother and also discusses her marriage.
She sums it up thus in our interview: “Essentially, I would say that being a parent is not easy for anybody. But being a parent while facing the challenges of career and marriage can be very traumatising. I feel happy and lucky that I was able to have a family and to raise my children. That for me is an experience that is absolutely necessary. I know many young women sometimes feel like their career is much more important than a family, but I would like to share with them the fact that they have a biological clock, and at a certain time they may wish to have children but can’t; yet a man can still have children. Women must remember that even though we say we are equal to men, biology does not always favour us.”
She encourages young career women to start families and then focus on career. Her personal experience illustrates that having it all can indeed by a myth, and not many women are able, or fortunate enough, to enjoy this. “When you have children,” she says, “there is a great deal of personal fulfillment and satisfaction that comes when you are older. For instance, you can enjoy having grandchildren. I am very happy that I have children and experienced marriage even though that did not last long. It was a good experience.”
Why not remarry? I ask.
Turns out the answer is plain and simple and cuts across all ages of women. “I didn’t meet the right man.” Add to that the fact that traditionally speaking, African communities do not recognise divorce. “Our society just hasn’t developed to the extent that a woman can marry another man and that man accepts her children as easily as it happens in developed countries. This is a completely foreign concept in an African situation, even though we divorce. On paper you may be separated but psychologically the children are still a part of their father and his relatives; they still want to see him. It becomes very difficult for them if their mother remarries. Maybe it’s easier with the new generation but in my time, it was not. People still see you as belonging to that family even though legally you are separated.
I think I am satisfied with the fact that I did not meet anybody. And in many ways it made it easier to raise my children and develop a relationship with my former husband that allowed the children to feel comfortable with him, his relatives and their grandparents. That was very important for their psychological development.” She sees her children frequently and in fact, part of organising this interview involves meeting her daughter, Wanjira, who is publicity shy but quite loving towards her mother. She is herself is a mother of three. “I see my children frequently – they live in Nairobi and I am not that busy that I don’t have time for them.”
As a woman who had to seek a career to earn money to support her children, one imagines she would have felt a sense of relief after winning the Nobel Prize money. Not quite so. “People don’t know how much money I have handled in my life. The Green Belt Movement has a big budget and in a year I might handle three times more than what I won. That being said, it does affect the sense of insecurity – if anything happened to me, my children would not be completely desperate.
But I think people over-emphasise the money. We live in a country where people think in thousands, not millions, and they wonder, what will you do with all that? It did not change the way I live. It did not change my house – I still live in the same house. It did not change my lifestyle. But it did give me the opportunity to create the Wangari Maathai Institute at the University of Nairobi. This is an effort to institutionalise some of the work of the Movement and to share our experience. With that kind of financial back up, I feel confident enough to entertain big ideas. When you don’t have money, it is difficult to plan.”
She is currently working on the details of this project and says it is essentially a place where people can come and learn by doing. A place where the gap between what we know about the environment and what we do (or don’t do) to take care of it is bridged. Otherwise we will remain poor, says the woman who had her first garden as a child and still has one at home today. This woman embodies strength and resilience, qualities that have endured over the years and made her a role model to both the young and not so young alike.
Her courage, she says, comes from “personal experience and constitution”. She adds, “It is not something that grows overnight. Everything that we are, we have to work on. We must develop and nurture it. And the education we get should help us. It is extremely important to believe in yourself and not always think others are better than you because then you diminish and undervalue yourself. Have some values for your life.
One of my strongest values is service. I learnt very early in life that when you serve other people you benefit somehow. Many people think the opposite but the truth is when you constantly focus on you, you impoverish yourself. When you are greedy, and self-centred, you lose yourself. But when you think of ways you can be useful to others, you enrich yourself in the process. That has been a strong driving force in my life.”
Prof Maathai has enjoyed as much of an illustrious life as she has experienced lows in her run-ins with the government and perhaps this is what makes her resonate with the ordinary mwananchi. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree in 1971 and was a member of the National Council of Women in Kenya for over a decade from 1976 to 1987. It was here that the idea to venture into tree planting germinated. The aim was to alleviate poverty and care for the environment.
She says that some of the people we admire the world over, such as Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa, are honoured because whatever they did, they did for others. Her work has touched many African countries, and she is, in fact, currently ambassador to the Congo forests. This particular activity has helped her polish up on her French. She also speaks German and spends her leisure time studying these languages as well as writing and reading. She has won countless awards and received honorary degrees from various universities, including Yale in 2004; serves on various boards and was inducted into the Earth Hall of Fame in 2010.
What does she think of all this?
“I have learnt that there is something in the message I give. However, I don’t always know how importantly it is going to influence others. Sometimes I meet people who tell me that we met 10 years ago and that I inspired them to great things as a result of listening to what I said. That is amazing because when you are talking to hundreds of people you have no idea the different messages people take home with them. It is a humbling and encouraging lesson.”
Her main responsibilities right now, aside from working with the Green Belt Movement, include training women and preparing them for politics. She believes the new Constitution offers women many advantages. “Women have gained so much but I get the sense that the Kenyan woman does not really appreciate this. She should consolidate her gains and begin to realise how to make them a reality. There will always be a need for campaigns and a need to push the bar, but the Constitution has given her more power; she would never have achieved that by pushing.”
Prof Maathai’s list of achievements and accomplishments are enough to leave one breathless, but she takes it all in her stride.
“It is true that my life has been a constant buzz of activity and in many ways I love it. But I have learnt to take time off no matter where I am. When I am travelling I take time to uncoil in the departure lounge. Or I can uncoil comfortably in my house doing nothing. The body requires that sometimes. Or I listen to music and watch TV. I find that very relaxing.”
She is also slowing down a tad because of health issues. Our interview had to be postponed severally owing to hospital visits. “I guess when you hit my age you start to slow down. Every time I feel the urge to do something, I am aware of that. I think it is good to do things when you can because sooner or later, the body starts to give up. Women should take care of their health.
I am 70 and there should be many more years ahead, but sometimes we misuse our bodies and when we should be energetic and busy, instead we’re allowing our bodies to disintegrate. Taking care of your health is one of the things you should do for yourself.” And take care she does. “I exercise, mostly on a stationary bicycle, the treadmill or swimming, and I eat well. I wish we could get walking and bicycle parks so that movement becomes a part of our lives.”
Aside from that, she says, “These days I don’t travel for pleasure. I travel because I am going to do business. I learnt early that the moments you have, whether in a hotel, at home or mid-flight, it will never be replicated. So live the moment like you will never live it again. I take advantage of wherever I am and whatever I am doing. If I can enjoy that time in the pool, or out walking, it is great.”
Any regrets for this woman who has such a full life?
“Funny enough, no. I never had a blueprint but I do know that I have tried throughout my life to do the right thing. Things did not work exactly the way I planned them but it is not as if I did not deliberately pursue what I thought was right.
The one thing I would probably do differently given another chance is take time off to raise my children. Perhaps I had too much on my plate at a very young age. I was young, my family was young, my husband was in politics and I was trying to be supportive of him. I was also just starting a career at the university and trying to compete with my colleagues–I think it was a little too much.
Just because everybody else is doing it you think that is the way things should be done. I really think if I had to do things over, I would take care of my children first then build a career.”
What of her fashion sense?
She is always in African print with matching head wrap. Is there any particular reason behind this? “When you are an African woman and a politician’s wife there is a certain way you have to behave in public. People look at you, then your husband, and they want to be sure that you are not a diversion. I learnt, for example, that during campaigns a woman should not wear a miniskirt (even though I was very young then), or a dress that might get blown by the wind. So very early on I got used to wearing long dresses and keeping myself to myself. I did not want to draw attention. I developed my way of dressing and became comfortable in it.Tinally, she points out that women need to participate in politics.
“It is politicians who decide whether we stay poor or rich so if we decide men should dominate politics, then we should not be surprised that the country does not change. It is extremely important for women to be involved and not to feel that this is a man’s job. There are a lot of decisions we can influence positively.”
WORDS: CAROL ODERO
PHOTOGRAPHS: OSBORNE MACHARIA
PHOTOGRAPHER’S ASSISTANT: VICTOR OGALO
MAKE UP: WACUKA THIMBA
HAIR: SHIRO WANYOIKE