She says, “I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves, I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.
“Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.”
As an adult, this woman noticed changes in Kenya, her home. She saw that women lacked firewood that was crucial for cooking, they had no clean drinking water, they didn’t have enough food, and often they had no shelter and no income. She was suffused with compassion for her countrywomen, for her country. But what to do?
Exasperated, she planted nine trees in her back yard, thinking, rightly, more trees would mean more firewood and less desertification of the land. Trained as a biologist, she knew that trees prevent soil erosion and water pollution, trees improve nutrition for animals and humans, and they provide shelter. Trees would also keep women, who collect cooking fuel each day, closer to home.
Last Sunday, the woman with this desperate, audacious idea, the woman who is now responsible for the planting of more than 30 million trees in Kenya, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The childhood reminiscence above is part of Wangari Maathai’s acceptance speech.
Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, is the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. There have been many other firsts for her: first woman in Kenya (and far beyond) to earn a doctorate and first woman professor at the University of Nairobi.
But I think the most laudatory thing is that she noticed a problem, literally in her own back yard, and she acted. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said on announcing her selection, “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai . . . embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.”
She helped her country come to understand that the choices their leaders were making, such as giving large chunks of land to corrupt sycophants who then ruined it, were harming everyone for generations into the future.
She wasn’t popular with the government; she relentlessly fought for the land and for African women, who have it worse than just about anyone else, insisting that the people would be better caretakers of Kenya than their leader, Daniel arap Moi. From 1950 to 2000, Kenya lost 90 percent of its forests. She felt the need to point that out.
Wangari Maathai has raged against the machine for most of her 64 years. She was teargassed, arrested and imprisoned by her own government. Then, two years ago, after 24 bitter years with Moi ruling Kenya and a total of 39 years’ domination by his party, Kenya made a peaceful transition to new leadership and now Maathai is part of the new establishment, holding a Parliament seat and a presidential appointment to watch over the environment.
This woman works for peace when she teaches Kenyan children to plant trees at the edge of their schoolyard. The kids become stewards of the forests, learning for themselves what trees need and what they give. Wangari Maathai is arming Kenya with a new generation of children who appreciate the shelter, the shade, the beauty, the products and the economy of trees.
The Nobel folks are telling us that anyone who doesn’t see the connection between peace and the careful stewardship of air, water and land isn’t paying attention. The world is full of conflicts and out-and-out wars over the uneven distribution of resources. Does anyone really think the oil in Iraq is incidental to our country’s involvement there?
The situation in Darfur - if not every other African conflict - is at least in part about water. What battles do we face in Utah as a result of the natural resources that are and are not prevalent here?
Wangari Maathai understood these things. She was willing to notice what was happening around her and she dared to act. She started in her own back yard in 1977 and she didn’t stop before last Sunday in Oslo when she won the world’s most prestigious award (including a cool $1.5 mil) and drank Dom Perignon with the King of Norway.
I doubt it will go to her head, though - the award, not the champagne. As she said in her acceptance speech, “Although a lot has been achieved, much remains to be done.”
Wangari Maathai is a hero and an inspiration to people around the world. She motivates me to ask two questions. What are we failing to notice? How can we help to preserve the beauty and the wonder?
Barb Guy is a regular contributor to these pages.