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Fighting the green fight
February 12's Beatty lecturer, Dr. Wangari Maathai, has been called (by the courts when divorcing her husband) "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."
PHOTOS: Owen Egan
She has been a thorn in the side of the corrupt Kenyan government. And 25 years ago she started a powerful environmental organization, the Green Belt Movement.
Forests in Kenya had been cleared for cash crops, resulting in soil degradation, a lack of firewood and clean water, and diminished food supply. Children were malnourished and the women disheartened.
Maathai taught women how to identify and collect seeds from their neighbourhoods, how to dig wells, grow seedlings, and keep them safe from animals and destructive humans.
These "foresters without diplomas" went to work, developing nurseries and planting millions of trees.
Now, the movement also teaches food security, fosters civic education, and promotes advocacy. Other African countries have been inspired to adopt similar development programs.
Maathai travelled to the U.S. for university studies as a young woman, and returned to her home country to become the first Kenyan woman to earn a PhD. She was hired as a professor of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi and joined the National Council of Women, where she spoke with rural women and made the connection between their lack of firewood and how widespread the clearing of land had become since she'd been away.
"When this dawned on me, I looked around; I started to see the environment with a different eye," Maathai said in an interview with the Reporter.
"I guess my mission in life has been to try to make people see the environment with a different eye. Because until you do, you don't see anything wrong with it.
"I saw that the earth was naked. For me the mission then was to try to clothe, cover the earth; cover the ground with green. And that's where the whole concept of the Green Belt Movement came to being."
But her goals changed over time. "When I first started, planting trees was about as benign as you could think. But in time, politicians became bothered by what we were doing. And that intrigued me. I wanted to know, why are politicians concerned? Why should people find it unacceptable that I should be organizing women to plant trees?"
The government wanted to be the only source of information in a land where many people are illiterate, and TV and radio are state-controlled. Furthermore, there was a law that required meetings of more than nine people to have a licence. "Now, until you try to meet, you don't even know there is such a law.
"It was very clear that what the government is trying to do is control people. When I understood that, that was the beginning of my activism."
This control was tied to the colonial legacy in which the British had declared all natural resources as property of the government. "In the post-colonial era, all the powers of the governor were transferred to the president. That is why in many African countries, presidents are very, very powerful. Because there was no effort to distribute the power. And when the Africans took over the power, they realized how sweet that power was. And how they could now, literally, manage the resources as if they were the governor, and these people were the subjects." In short, Kenyans had exchanged white gods for black gods.
"If you look across Africa, especially south of the Sahara, that is what has been happening -- exploitation of resources, but enrichment of just a few people in power. And the rest of the people: impoverished, exploited, crushed."
Maathai says her fellow Africans are starting to get fed up with the corruption they see in high places. "It took some time before the African realized this monster -- he may look like us, but he's no better; he's even worse than what came before."
In fighting the government, Maathai and her followers have been arrested, beaten, intimidated, but they will not fall silent. Fortunately, she now has enough international recognition that the government finds it increasingly difficult to persecute or imprison her. How did she keep strong during such hard times?
"I've been very lucky. I never have times when I feel 'just give up now,' even when I've been very devastated, frustrated. I somehow always feel that when I get out of here, I have so much to do!
"Today I'm listening to the World Bank and development agencies emphasizing that we need to have community participation. I could have told them 25 years ago!
"All the economists said, 'Let's start at the top and it will trickle down.' But the only thing that trickled down is corruption, poverty, debt and impoverishment."
Maathai believes the difference between struggling African countries and successful post-colonial Southeast Asian countries is that Asia invested in its people. "We have invested in machines. We have invested in arms. We have invested in the armies, and in the police...to keep the people oppressed."
Education is essential, but those without access to it are not powerless, said Maathai. "The people who are doing the work, 90% cannot read or write. They are illiterate. But they are doing something that is transforming the environment. Something that the foresters who have diplomas have been told to do and they are not able to do. Diplomas don't dig holes!"
At the talk, Maathai showed a slide of verdant forest planted by her "foresters without diplomas." "Behold! They look exactly like trees planted by people with diplomas!"