Every time I see 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai speak I cry. I suppose it's not very journalistic of me to say that, and it certainly isn't manly, but it's true.
I had the good fortune to briefly meet Maathai a few years ago after a talk she gave to a small audience in Connecticut, before she won the international honor from Sweden. For decades the founder of the Green Belt Movement has been a tireless, fierce warrior for the Earth and for oppressed people.
Yesterday I saw Maathai speak at The Cooper Union here in NYC. The event was opened with a selection from Taking Root, a recent (and also inspirational) documentary on Maathai. Next a representative from the city's sustainability team spoke, saying that New Yorkers -- not a group known for their humility -- felt humbled by the Nobel Laureate.
"New York has been working very hard to plant 1 million trees, which sounds like a lot. But here is someone who has planted 45 million trees on the continent of Africa," he said.
Maathai has led women in her native Kenya, and across other parts of Africa, in planting so many trees so they can restore damaged ecosystems and watersheds; provide shade; and supply a renewable source of firewood, nuts, fruits and other useful materials. Maathai has also spearheaded efforts to promote sustainable agriculture and appropriate development, teaching people (especially women) valuable skills, and getting them engaged in community and political life. Maathai, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in Eastern Africa, has served as an advisor to many governments and organizations, and has been a leader in the Kenyan Parliament (winning 98% of her home town) and environmental ministry. She ran for president of Kenya in the '90s but was disqualified on a technicality.
Dressed in bright blue African attire, Maathai spoke about her latest book, The Challenge for Africa, with WNYC radio host Leonard Lopate. The pair probed the deep roots of Africa's many problems, and outlined solutions.
The crux of Maathai's message is that Africans must learn to pull themselves out of their own problems, through a combination of good governance, rooting out corruption, sustainable development and wise planning, not to mention hard work. She broke it down like this:
According to Maathai, one of the legacies of colonialism is that Africans now "wait for a leader to come along and do something for them. When people are waiting for a handout, it reduces them. They become heavy to lift up."
She continued, "The British put us on the wrong bus, and we need to change buses. After independence our first leaders were British, except for their color. We embraced leaders who didn't embrace their people. We thought that because they looked like us they would not exploit us, or violate our rights." (If you don't know anything about Kenyan history, note that recent leaders have done precisely that.)
Maathai explained that the lack of accountability of most African leaders has been a tremendous problem. Uneducated voters are in a poor position to critically analyze the issues, and so are easily swayed by public figures with wealth and visibility, as well as ethnicity (often to the level of tribes, clans or other micronationalities) -- even if the leaders served in high positions in past despotic regimes.
Asked by an audience member if Africa should try to experiment with forms of governance beyond Western democracy -- which has not produced stellar results on that continent to date -- Maathai replied, to loud applause: "I guess we could try. But what's so difficult about stopping to be greedy? We need to stop eating the seeds, and start planting."
Lopate and Maathai discussed the complicated relationship Africa has had with the rest of the world. During the Cold War, the continent was a battleground between the West and the Soviet Bloc. Today "Africa is not a priority for others, except for resources," warned Maathai. She added, "Much of so-called 'aid' is really 'trade.' For every dollar going into Africa four come out."
Maathai said that she and others had collected 17 million signatures on a petition asking the G8 to cancel the debt of poor African nations. "We told them that we had already paid it back several times over, but that it had been structured for us to fail." The Nobel Laureate said the countries were unable to pay, and trying to force them to do so would have meant many deaths.
Speaking about the World Bank and other lending institutions, she said, "If banks aren't regulated they can kill you." When Maathai bought a house in Kenya, she was charged 26% interest. "How is anyone going to buy a house under those conditions?" she asked.
Appealing to the crowd's angst about the current global recession, Maathai said it should be clear to everyone now that banks must be regulated and overseen by governments and watchdogs.
Maathai also acknowledged that well-meaning charity can cause more problems than it solves, if it sets people down the path to dependency instead of independence. This is a theme echoed by Paul Theroux in his exhaustive Dark Star Safari, complete with tails of expensive projects in Africa that quickly crumbled, after they failed the locals. Maathai said that although may Africans, and Kenyans in particular, are excited that the president of the U.S. has roots there, she warned that her countrymen should not expect much help unless they lift themselves up to being worthy of it.
Maathai said much of her recent work has centered on forest preservation, especially to secure invaluable watersheds, which are currently threatened from deforestation and extractive industries. She asked why the World Bank, or anyone else, would want to lend money to Kenya to build more electrical capacity (only 18% of homes there have power) when unsustainable development threatens to shut down the rivers that are harnessed to produce much of the existing energy (through hydropower). She said what the people really need is solar and wind power, but it doesn't seem like that's the chief offerings from international institutions. "Loans are presented as a gift to us, but really it's to cut our throats with," she said.
Maathai explained that Africa is also badly in need of more funding for research in sustainable agriculture and other subjects, as well as extension services to help farmers and gardeners, similar to what we have in America. She said this would go a long way to slowing desertification, as well as deforestation, which she pointed out is the region's largest contributor of greenhouse gases. This would also help slow the brain drain that has long been transporting much of Africa's best talent overseas. "If we governed better we could offer higher salaries and more resources to professionals, and more would come back," she said.
When Lopate asked Maathai -- a lifelong Catholic -- what she thought of the Pope's recent assertion that condoms merely spread HIV, she said history shows that the church has been very slow to change positions. "They only recently forgave Galileo," she pointed out to much laughter. She added that when she was a girl she was forbidden to eat meat on Friday, although that rule has since been abolished. Maathai issued a warning to religious leaders to remember that what they say can have a tremendous influence on people, especially the uneducated, who may essentially view their words as the words of God.
Although Maathai acknowledged that the Nobel Prize has afforded her a degree of protection and support around the world, she still has many enemies, both at home and abroad. Over the years she and her supporters have been harassed, jailed, threatened and severely beaten. In the 1980s, Maathai's husband divorced the mother of three, saying she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control." On the patriarchal content of Africa, many men still have major problems with her leadership.
In previous settings Maathai has criticized Monsanto for using strong-arm tactics against her movement, due to her opposition to genetically engineered seeds (especially the terminator gene). Some have criticized Maathai for this position, saying the foods are needed to stave off hunger, but others claim the motivation is money, not charity, and that there are better ways to help Africans than to use them as guinea pigs for unproven technology.
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