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Prof Wangari Maathai (Nobel Laureate) – Her one regret, motherhood and why she never remarried

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

  • John

    We are proud of you mama. You have done Kenya proud. I was once in US a girls asked me this.
    “How is Wangari Mathai” and,
    I said “She is fine. She is my Aunt” (do not mind that i lied).

    I was give first class treatment the whole week I was there.

    Thanks mama.

  • Ezekiel maina

    Quite inspiring, without exaggeration MATHAI is surely a role model to any woman! Infact I admire her thr’ my daughters…i live in Qatar.

  • http://themaneadvantage.blogspot.com Jacqui

    RIP Prof Wangari Mathai, Truly an icon and an inspiration.

  • jobbie

    An African woman with full energy and daring,u really touched many and changed their way of doing things.REST IN PEACE.

  • monicah

    You are truly an icon and you will be remembered for your effort in fighting for our environment. R.I.P Professor.

  • Anonymous

    You have been my inspiration.RIP

  • Priscah

    I realy admire her. Giving up didnt appear in her dictionary. Salute n rest in peace

  • rashid kilanga

    What an interview what a story what an article, superb job, just one question did she know she is going to die? Cause this article will still be relevant 100 years from today very wise and inspiring, RIP PROFESSOR. VERY SAD.

  • http://Uonbi Dr. Loise gichuhi

    Only last week, i was teaching the role of education in peace building. I give an example of you and i wished i could invite you in my class. God was planning good things for you. RIP. You are a model worth your 71 years

  • Botu Musyoka

    R.I.P Wangari Matu Maathai…you were/are my Hero when it comes to Aiming Highest and Funniest. The FIRE will remain Burning in Generations to come!!

  • Beverlyne

    Mama u were such a great inspiration. For ever ur name reigns. N our hrts u live n God’s hands u rest. RIP.

  • Michael Kasango

    1 Timothy 6:12.
    You have Fought the Good Fight, Finished the Race, Kept the Faith.
    Rest in PEACE Wangari

  • kalasinga ya kasinga

    God is good.R.I.P MAMA mazingira

  • Anonymous

    We celebrate life well lived RIP

  • Anonymous

    Rest in Peace good Professor your deeds will be an inspiration in many generations to come.Reddinho

  • Agapetus Mathew

    Let me not be qouted wrongly, I question our beloved God. Why do you always take away the only good ones we have in our mids? I relate the untimely death of Prof. Maathai with that of my Mum Rose Awour and Hon. Micheal Kijan Wamalwa, it is a big blow to our community to gain strength to be defenders the way these great people did. Whom are we to replace with in order to restore our forest, to have flowing rivers, to have beautiful lakes, to have peace and understanding amongest ourselves, who will mediate for us and who will make sure that food, shelter and clothings are enough for us all.

    May Her Soul Rest in Peace! I proclaim you as a hero and a saint.

    Mother Nature, we will miss you!

    • Wanjiku

      Its human to question especially when things don’t go the way we anticipate. I resonate with you because my dad left us while we were very young. One thing I am sure of God does what is best. Wangari and your mom are in a better place, for instance Wangari will never have to feel any more pain from sickness or disease. When our loved ones leave us, we are prone to ask why but I have learnt to trust the one who holds our future. There is a better place for each one of us if we can place our lives in the one who gives us breath every day. The only way to entrust our lives to Him is to believe and confess His Son Jesus Christ. There is hope beyond the grave my brother.

  • http://yahoo Reddinho

    Rest in Peace good professor your deeds will be an inspiration in generations to come.Reddinho

  • kimani stanley

    R.I.P mama.You are a true role model.

  • Edwin

    She Lived a full life..R.I.P

  • http://yahoo.com vaselecha

    This article will be read for any years to come. You were and remain my icon.I will plant a tree to honour you.RIP mama mazingira.

  • Waringa

    RIP Prof. You fought a good fight and inspired many!

  • Tracy hon

    Its a big blow. Wangari was a model n inspired many world wide. Glory be to God. RIP Proffesor.

  • Bonphace Nyagi

    Mama you were a heroin to the world,your spirit of struggle was born in our generation hence we shall keep your mantle glowing for generations to come.R.I.P

  • Jacque

    Very sad indeed! to think that such a great life can end so abruptly? Very well put advice about not putting career ahead of bringing up Children!

  • lilian

    my heart stilll aches at the thought of it.we have lost a precious jewel!you were more than a role model to me and to many other nature loving young women.only last week i was talking to a classmate who comes from the same home area as me about empowering the youth at home and going into a tree planting activity to help make our environment green since this would boost food production in the future.we considered writing a proposal to mother nature(the late prof.) and invite her to join us in our tree planting activity.The dream leaves on…………we wont stop practicing what the late prof.fought so hard for.we should all join hands and plant a tree in memory of the late professor Wangari Maathai! REST IN PEACE MUM!

  • nakitare jacqueline

    rest in peace mum.

  • Anonymous

    rest in peace

  • Tity

    Rest in peace mama mazingira. You made Kenya proud

  • NJOROGE

    You were a true fighter and champion of sustainable development.Though physically gone your works and words will never die. RIP

  • http://N/A Nduta

    Mother Nature i salute you. May Almighty God rest you soul in eternal peace.

  • Josephine Ambogo Elime

    Mama Africa, Rest in Peace. You inspired many. Though you are gone but your words will be remembered for ever. I’m going to plant a tree to honor you.

  • WANGECHI MUKORA

    REST IN PEACE MOM YOU LOOKED AS IF LIFE WAS JUST BEGINNING,YOU WORKED TIRELESSLY TO SAVE THE ENVIRONMENT.WE SHALL NEVER FORGET UHURU PARK IS WHAT IT IS TODAY BECAUSE OF YOU.OUR CHILDREN AND GENERATIONS WILL ENJOY THE PARK…..IAM SURE THE GOOD LORD SAW YOUR SMILE,VEGETATION HE CRATED IN THE BOOK OF GENESIS REST IN PEACE MOM…..

  • Richie

    RIP Prof, you really inspired many.

  • Ndambiri

    Good advice to women. Families first, careers second if given a chance to raise a family. Rest in peace mama.

    • Amina

      you raised us mama wangari, do not have regrets, you raised us from our stupidity and ignorance. you raised millions of Kenyans and the world. your are our mother

  • Anonymous

    Mama Wanagari Mathai you have been very influential woman to me.I wish the dead would have phone contacts I would have consulted you before you are buried.The entire Kanyala little stars women group in Rusinga Island are shocked with your death.We hope to meet you in New Jerusalem when Jesus will come back for the second time.

  • KImwaki

    You were a great warrior, I salute you. Your great work will speak for many generations to come.
    may your soul rest in eternal peace.

  • jonathan

    RIP Mama mazingira. Women should learn from your advice – Take care of children first and pursue careers later – only then – You will enjoy the rest of your sunset days. The magnitude of your achievements are enormous and words cannot express. You make us as Kenyans proud and to women a role model of no measure

  • Grace Kariuki

    You have inspired me more than anyone else in recent times. You shall forver remain an icon of hope in our lives. May God grant you eternal peace mama. FARE THEE WELL.

  • Anne Wagema

    you remain in our hearts! r.i.p

  • Nyambura

    Great woman, rest in peace. You have taught many in and out of class rooms. In all, you have been the best. In death you remain. You sacrificed for humanity but you know what? Not in vain! The future is bright for our children. They can relate to your struggles. Many will do the right thing and those who do not, will also know they have something to work on. For that we ask ”Death where is your victory? Where is your sting?” None whatsoever! May the Almighty receive and keep your soul in peace for ever Amen.

  • Grace Mugure

    Indeed you were a GREAT WOMAN OF GOD. You worked tirelessly to save God’s creation, the environment in our beloved coutry. We believe there will be many Wangaris to follow your footstepts so that we may not drink sand in Kenya. iPersonally I loved you because of the true love of your country. You were fearless and spoke the truth and a fighter for the real issues.

    God Giveth and taketh away. AMEN. RIP

  • Ira ndunda

    Kenya was too small for you! It really reflects the person you were.Little did we know, and soo much we got! Rest in peace! prayers are for your family!We shall try follow yr footsteps!

  • sam kibet

    Its a big blow. quite inspiring story a true icon RIP

  • http://www.kenyanmagazines.com Njeri Ndeti

    Great icon of the environment, i have always admired you courage & determination, I cant believe that you are gone.RIP my dear friend till we meet again. Amen

  • Amina

    It is only my prayers that we remember her wisdom.

  • http://www.yahoo.com james kibicho

    u r heroine mama.rest in peace

  • shiku

    Rip

  • Lyn sein

    R.I.P

  • Chesang

    life well lived rest in peace mama.

  • dedan

    R.I.P MAMA trees,great mother of kenyans,we loved u for the good things u did and for the bad we pray God to forgive u .u tought us alot [thank you] we will live to remember u mum.

  • http://www.kenyanmagazines.com abel

    R.I.P Prof.this article needs to be followed to the letter not only to women but also men.

  • pamela

    R.I.P mum, u were my role model

  • Hildah odira

    You are the reason why we are still having Uhuru Park as it is, though empty ,I understand a 6 store flat building was to be built in Uhuru Park for rental purposes by some Goverment Officials, those days,But you said No.I salute you. RIP

    • John

      .
      (Note this very good and motherly advice)
      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

  • Anonymous

    RIP mama you are one of these rare women one wud come across.RIP

  • ABEL ONGERI

    Mama mazingira. U were an inspiration to many of us. U did not even fear death when u wanted to perform your duties. Infact, many people did not recognize u at home, but I am glad that the world did recognize u. It is sad that your importance is felt when u are gone. Forever you will remain in the hearts of many. I think we should honor you by protecting that which you fought for throughout your life. OUR ENVIRONMENT OUR LIFE OUR FUTURE!

  • CHRISTINE ACHIENG RADING FREIDAL

    REST IN PEACE THE QUEEN OF THE EARTH……

  • Mark Wanzala

    Though gone , but your spirit will forever remain with us mama.RIP.

  • Tonui

    Did great things to humanity a simple, humble manner. Worth emulating indeed. R.I.P. mama

  • ALICE

    Gone but inspires Many.You are my Role model,You are woman of great honour and principle.

  • Onyango Andrew

    Wonderful woman. A great mentor not only in Kenya but globally. Thanks for acting as an example in this our field of environmental management. Your work will never fade R.I.P

  • ajode olum david

    The work that you tirelessly deed for the entire will always will always be remebered mama may you rest in enternal peace.

  • joan kones

    Wangari Maathai, i am very inspired by the life u lived n the work u did. I admire yo courage n yo will to serve others. You made a great use of your time when here, now you are in a better place. May your soul Rest In Peace.

  • Paul kihara

    Waangari maathai daima dawamu utakumbukwa kwa wema………lala salama mama

  • Gladys

    Purposeful leaving. We are proud of you.Rest in Peace.

  • AGNES

    MUTA WANGARI MATAAI. I ENVEY YOU SO MUCH.

  • salome

    Rest in peace Prof.forever u will live in our hearts.we will carry on what you started and fought for.R.I.P

  • Titus

    who will ever fill this gap that she left. God raise one more we pray

  • ESSIE

    A wise advise mum,raise our families first then our careers follow,we are not mourning u bt we are celebrating a life well lived,KOMA THAYU MAMI.

  • wilson mwangi kinyua

    truely you were a hero, hear of everyone showerng praises to you.Let us learn to copy from our legends.
    RIP mum.

    • MUTUA

      an interview of true African woman,a heroine,role model and most important a mother, RIP prof. your land mark will forever remain within our midst.

  • EMILY

    Thumbs up MAMA.

    WE TRULY MISS U. KOMA THAYU

  • Becky

    it is stilll haard to imagine u r not alive.

  • Rose Mukuria

    Thanks for giving so much of yourself to the world

  • MICHELLE MBUTHIA

    you inspired, you inspire and you will continue to inspire for generations to come.

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