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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Nobel Prize Winner Wangari Maathai Remembered

Published: February 6, 2018

By Steve Curwood

Secretary-General Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon Inducts Wangari Maathai as UN Messenger of Peace in 2009 (Flickr Creative Commons; United Nations Photo)

(stream/download) as an MP3 file

After a year long battle with cancer, Wangari Maathai, the first environmental activist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, died of cancer on September 25 in Nairobi, Kenya. During a remarkable life she was a scientist and environmentalist; in later years she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament and served as a cabinet minister. Shortly after Dr. Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Living on Earth's Ingrid Lobet traveled to Kenya to produce a documentary about the founder of the Green Belt Movement. Click to listen and see more.

CURWOOD: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, this is Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. In 2004, for the very first time in its history, the Nobel Committee awarded its prestigious Peace Prize to an environmental activist.
The winner was a scientist and an African woman. Her name: Wangari Maathai. Perhaps you've heard of the Green Belt Movement she founded to reforest the landscape of her East African nation.

In today’s program we ask two questions: Who is Wangari Maathai and why has her Green Belt Movement blossomed? Wangari Maathai says she had little idea in the beginning that teaching women to plant trees would not just demystify forestry, but would also change the lives of women and help clean up government as well. Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet has our story of how this very Kenyan approach to environmental activism may hold lessons for the rest of the world.

LOBET: A boundary of coffee, mango and papaya trees encircles a steep hillside in Kenya's Central Highlands. The ground is packed with seedlings, their roots wrapped in black plastic. On any morning, in 3500 nurseries like this one across central Kenya, volunteers tend their prospects. Heisal Bangui and a group of her neighbors shows me how they do it.

Eunice Nyokabi at her nursery in Ruiru, Kenya, watering a few of her 30 to 50 thousand seedlings. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

BANGUI: We take an empty, an empty bag, we fill with soil. We have mixed the soil with the manure and we fill and we do like that. After watering, we take seed, we put, we make a hole with finger, then we insert. We insert the seed inside here, then we water again.

LOBET: Nurseries like this one are the core of the Green Belt Movement. They begin with a call or letter to the Movement office in the capital Nairobi. Green Belt tells them: “Find a meeting room in your school or church and invite everyone.” Then a staff member goes to the meeting and helps the community choose the most gung ho or best organized among them to be leaders. People learn to collect tree seeds and how to choose a nursery plot. They prepare the ground. Then the Movement gives them the precious black polyethylene tubes for tamping in the soil, the African version of the cardboard seedling pot.

LOBET: Heisal and her friends lead me over to a hand-dug hole, about six-feet deep.

BANGUI: This is where we get water for watering. We use the can... this is the can we use.

LOBET: To get water you must step steeply down into the hole, brace your feet against its dirt sides, bend over, and fill the bucket below your feet, then swing the 20 pounds of water over your head, then up onto the ground. And you must do this for two hours at a time, twice a day until the seedlings are six inches high.

BANGUI: Oooh. Ah, this is what we do daily.


BANGUI: This is what we do.


LOBET: When the plants are one foot tall, they carry them to be planted.

BANGUI: And then we use sacks. We put about 20, and then we use our back.

LOBET: They carry the 40-or-so-pound sacks of seedlings up the hillside strapped to their foreheads.

BANGUI: You see the place is steep. So we come more than 10 times, yeah, going up and down, carrying this heavy nini. We carry 20. 20 seedlings. Just 20. And it is heavy. They are heavy because the soil, the soil is wet. Yeah, that is what we do, mmm. We feel it is our work so we can’t get tired. We can see the fruit of the work we are doing.

The Mutathi-ini Green Belt Network at work in their Nyeri, Kenya nursery. Network members say they’re proud to labor near Wangari Maathai’s birthplace. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: The young trees go to members’ homes, for future firewood or shade. They go to neighbors, nearby schools, and, nowadays, to rehabilitate Kenya's ragged forests. Wherever they go, these seedlings are free, but the person receiving them must dig all the holes--a show of commitment.

Green Belt members continue to tend the baby trees for three months. Then the office in Nairobi pays them an amount that's small, but crucial-- five shillings-- about seven cents a seedling.

These acts of reforestation reverberate within Kenyans and their society. And the Movement has confronted the government armed with seedlings and been viewed as subversive. Once was in 1996, when Green Belt founder Wangari Maathai and her supporters, armed with seedlings, staged a series of protests at Karura National Forest, a 2600 acre wood on the northern outskirts of Nairobi. It turned out then-president Daniel Arap Moi was selling off pieces of forest to his backers.

SOUTH AFRICAN NEWSWOMAN: The crowds approaching the gates of Karura are each being met by a huge police blockade.

MUCHUNGI: Yeah, that day I saw death.

LOBET: Lillian Muchungi is a Green Belt organizer and mother of two. And, as usual, she was with Wangari Maathai on this day to retake Karura symbolically by planting.

MUCHUNGI: I was standing right next to her. That was the day I thought: maybe one day we will die over Karura. But she said there then, “on my dead body that Karura will ever be subdivided to individuals.”

LOBET: A crowd of young security guards, hired to keep the protesters at bay, waited a few yards away on the other side of a fence.

MUCHUNGI: When I looked at them, I knew these guys were going to beat us. They were carrying knives. They were carrying some daggers, you know, those very sharp pieces of wood and some whips, and machetes, you know. And I wanted to protect her and I wanted to talk to her to ask her not to do it and maybe go back, maybe get back there another time but she insisted, "this is the day that we are going to plant this tree. We must do it today.”

LOBET: A South African news team was on hand to record the standoff. Wangari Maathai held a seedling in one hand and a wooden crucifix in the other.

MAATHAI: As you can see, I am holding the power of Christ. I am quite sure that the anti-Christ will not keep us away from the forest. This is the power that the man who died on this cross did not believe in and I don't either.

MUCHUNGI: And she was trying to dig a hole. That is when they all jumped over the fence. And some were on her with whips and some very sharp daggers. Ten, ten young men, yes, were on us!

MUCHUNGI: I was hit with a big stone here, I remember. And for her, she was now... One of them landed on her head with one of the sharp objects and when I saw blood, I started screaming, but others were on her now with the whips, from all the sides.
I still remember that day.

LOBET: Maathai's head injury required stitching; she was released from the hospital a few days later. University students later joined the protests. The names of some involved in the real estate transactions were published and forest development halted.


LOBET: Where does a movement that can change a country begin? Maathai often recalls the heavily wooded hills of Nyeri where she was born.

MAATHAI: I grew up in a beautiful part of the country. Full of trees, full of food, a lot of happiness, a lot of water, a lot of firewood, a lot of building material. Everything that I am now trying to replenish, there was plenty of it when I was a child.


LOBET: Wangari's Maathai's mother also planted. She sent her daughter to school in the 1940s. In middle and high school her teachers were nuns and Maathai said she learned from their model of life in service to others. Then she traveled to Kansas to major in biology at a Catholic college, then more study in Pittsburgh and Germany and back home.

MAATHAI: In Nairobi, I pursued a Ph.D in anatomy in the early 70s. It seemed as though besides being a wife and mother I was destined to be a university professor, to help produce graduates of veterinary medicine who would feed the nation and East Africa with the products from the livestock industry.

[‘70s MUSIC]

LOBET: It was an exciting time to be Kenyan. Independence from Britain was a decade past. A young scientist wanted to advance her people. Wangari Maathai focused on livestock. She studied the brown ear tick, collecting thousands of them in the countryside in the hope of alleviating Rhinderpest, a fatal East African cattle fever.


MAATHAI: When I was collecting ticks I saw environmental degradation in my country. I noticed the animals from which I collected the ticks were thin and clearly suffering from hunger. There was little grass and other fodder . Rivers were low. This information was hitting me from all angles.

LOBET: Maathai saw the signs in the countryside and heard discussions about hunger at the National Council of Women of Kenya.

MAATHAI: I realized the real threat to cattle in my country was not the brown eared tick, but the deteriorating environment around me. I also recognized that not only the livestock industry, but me, my children, my students and my entire country were threatened by a deteriorating environment. Deforestation, soil loss, pollution, and non-sustainable management of the land. At one seminar, I was struck that children from the central part of Kenya where I grew up, amongst plenty, were suffering from malnutrition.

LOBET: Kenyan women were seeking faster-cooking meals because firewood was getting harder to find. What the British colonists had begun--cutting timber to build the East African railway--rural women were continuing in their search for fuel.

MAATHAI: I listened to the women from the rural areas, and I noticed that the issues they were raising had something to do with the land. They were asking for firewood, they need clean drinking water, they needed food, they needed income because they were poor. I immediately understood that what we really needed to address those problems is to rehabilitate the environment. I started encouraging women that we plant trees. That's how it all started.


LOBET: Though it wasn't clear at the time, Wangari Maathai and the National Council of Women of Kenya were inventing a playbook, an operating manual not just for planting trees but for transforming the lives of Kenyan women. But to do so they had to enter the province of men, the nation's professional foresters. They weren't always eager to share their knowledge. Maathai sought then, as she would many times, to disarm the opposition, telling them, "we’re just a bunch of women planting trees."

CURWOOD: Coming up, we'll hear how the Green Belt Movement and its founder Wangari Maathai reforested whole regions of Kenya and, in the process, drew the wrath of the Kenyan government. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

SINGERS: Wego-yo! Wasi no kyo!


CURWOOD: We're hearing this hour about the Green Belt Movement founded by the Kenyan biologist, environmentalist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. Our story resumes in the Central Highlands of Kenya, in the district of Murang'a, where women tree planters wrote this song in Maathai’s honor.


CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet continues our story:

LOBET: Today In Murang'a, the landscape is lush and green. But the older women say back in the 1970s, it looked quite different.


VOICEOVER: I can give you an example from here, right where we’re sitting.

LOBET: Green Belt veteran Margaret Wambui


VOICEOVER: This was bare soil, all the way over to there, bare soil! The birds would take dust baths here. There weren't any trees or even grass like you see now. The soil you see over on that hill could even have come from here, because the wind was always blowing away our soil. We even called it "the devil wind".


VOICEOVER: From the moment we planted these trees we've noticed our soil doesn't blow away anymore. Plants like these that you see just multiply now because the soil is rooted here, it stays put. And with these trees we now have fodder for our cows and firewood. That is the goodness of Green Belt. We're always singing the praises of Green Belt.


VOICEOVER: When I was a girl there was a lot of firewood. But later we had to go farther, to the forest to get wood, far away. We even had to go by bus, it was so far, and come back by bus, too. And since we couldn't bring back very much in the bus, we would have to go again the very next day.


LOBET: On the other side of the hill in Murang'a, another veteran leader, Edith Nyoki, sits in the shade of a stand of trees, on her property. She calls it her Garden of Eden.


VOICEOVER: We get wood planks for building, we get them from this very farm right here. And if you talk about eating, we plant fruit, fruit trees, we can even plant bananas, right here! This close to the house!


VOICEOVER: Yes, it is much better than it used to be.


“There was nothing in between these houses, you could see straight from one to the next. Now you can hardly see the next house!’ said Edith Nyoki. The bare spaces have been filled in with lush green vegetation. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

VOICEOVER: You could see very far! It was very dry. There was nothing in between these houses, you could see straight from one to the next. Now you can hardly see the next house!

LOBET: Are the trees what she feels most proud of, the biggest accomplishment of the movement in this area?


VOICEOVER: We came together as one, we became a group, as a group we rear our goats, we rear our cows, like these goats right here and we're very happy because we’re even getting milk from them. It's almost as good as the trees, this coming together.


LOBET: The women of Murang'a have another song they sing. "Switch on the light, Wangari. Now we can see, you have been our guide. We're grateful we don't rely on anyone anymore.”


LOBET: As the Movement spread in the 1980s, like any good organizers, Green Belt workers adapted and refined their goals and methods. They had to when they came face to face with some painful realities, realities that reached inside Kenya’s society and soul. Wangari Maathai:

MAATHAI: I realized part of the problems that we have in the rural areas or in the country generally is that a lot of our people are not free to think, they are not free to create, and, therefore, they become very unproductive. They may have knowledge. They may have gone to school but they are trained to be directed. They are trained to be told what to do. And that is some of the unmasking that the Green Belt Movement tries to do, is to empower people, to encourage them, to tell them it's okay to dream, it's okay to think, it's okay to change your minds, it’s okay to think on your own, it's okay to decide this is what you want to do. You don't have to wait for someone else to tell you.

LOBET: But if a certain passivity is entrenched, how to move beyond it? Many Kenyans can't read, and for others, hunger is a day away. So civic education is now at the heart of Green Belt Movement work. It sounds like this:


LOBET: When Green Belt organizers like Muriithi Kaburi visit a community, the energy between trainer and audience in a common native language--in this case Kikuyu--can be palpable, even if, as on this day, a wicked heat radiates down on the assembled through a metal church roof.


KAHARE: It's like you give people analytical skills to analyze their problems, not to just sing "problems, problems," like a song. You are telling them "Analyze your problems, and you can do something about them, don't just sit!"

LOBET: That's Njogu Kahare, another Green Belt staff member. Once a local Green Belt chapter has begun planting trees, organizers urge members to examine their community problems one by one.

KAHARE: All their problems they have in the world. So they list them. Sometimes they go to about 400, 500 and then you tell them “okay, are these the problems we have?” Yes. Let's see where they come from. And that is usually a very sensitive time when people are careful they are not incriminating themselves as the cause of the problem.

LOBET: Often, one problem the community identifies is corrupt local government.

KAHARE: So they see like "Oohhh...so a government can be bad without us knowing.” And also they start seeing themselves as a cause of many of the problems.

LOBET: For example, water may become scarce because someone illegally diverts the flow, so community members challenge each other.

KAHARE: Why do you do that? Why are you selfish? Now that is a root cause. You are selfish, you don't consider your neighbors, or the water is not being distributed properly. Or the chief favors you or the people in charge of that water favors you. And, therefore, the solutions could be, "now we need to make regulations that do not favor some people." Then they decide, “now we want to go into fair solutions."

LOBET: The community looks to solutions to food, water, and wood shortages that are within its power to address. It may decide to conserve water together, or to remove water-hogging trees from a nearby stream. It may insist on greater accountability from local officials. For the first 12 years of its existence, the Green Belt Movement worked this way, focusing on local concerns in largely rural areas. But in the late 1980s, that began to change when Wangari Maathai started connecting more dots, this time between Kenya's degrading land and its political leaders. As the movement broadened, it became more threatening.

MAATHAI: In the beginning I was intrigued because it’s such a benign activity. It's development, exactly what every leader speaks about and so I thought that we would be celebrated and we would be supported by the system. But what I did not realize then is that in many situations, leaders, especially leaders in undemocratic countries, have not been keen to inform their people to empower their people to help them solve their problems. They almost want them to remain needy, to remain poor, to remain dis-empowered so that they can look up to them, almost like gods and adore them and worship them and hope that they will solve their problems. Now, I couldn't stand that.

LOBET: A crucial moment in the evolution of the Green Belt Movement came in 1989 when the Kenyan government brokered a deal with media mogul Robert Maxwell to build a 60-story building and a four story statue of President Daniel Arap Moi in Nairobi's Uhuru Park.

MAATHAI: Here is a public park, the only huge public park, it is a beehive over the weekends, especially because that is where most people from low income areas escape with their families. And the ruling party at a time when it felt very, very powerful, like nobody could touch it, it decided to build this tower and take over the park.

LOBET: Maathai said she couldn't condone the project and call herself an environmentalist.

MAATHAI: Every city needs green spaces. Every city needs trees. Every city needs a space where people can rest without being asked questions and without being perceived as if they are intruding. Because they, too, need space. Space is a human right, you need space. And so I campaigned to have that space protected.

LOBET: Wangari Maathia's outspokenness drew immediate fire.

In 1989, the Kenyan Parliament tried to outlaw the Green Belt movement, after Maathai publicly voiced her opposition to the construction of a private 60-story building in a Nairobi park. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

MAN: The Daily Nation, Nairobi, Thursday, November 9th, 1989. Members of parliament yesterday condemned Professor Wangari Maathai for appealing to the British High Commissioner over the construction of a 60-storey building at Nairobi's Uhuru Park.

WOMAN: The Daily Nation, December 13 1989. President Daniel Arap Moi today attacked Professor Wangari Maathai for her objection to the media building at Uhuru Park saying even Jesus Christ would not have stood for this kind of interference. He said that "Wa mama" African custom calls for mothers to respect men. He wondered why other Kenyan women were sitting on the fence to endlessly witness her crusade.

MAN: The Daily Nation. A number of Ministers of Parliament called yesterday for the de-registration of Professor Wangari Maathai's Green Belt Movement, saying it was not rendering service to the nation.

An assistant minister, Mr. John Keene, said his great respect for women had been greatly eroded by her utterances. Mr Keene asked her and her clique of women to tread cautiously, adding "I don't see the sense at all in a bunch of divorcees coming out to criticize such a complex.”

MAATHAI: That's when they reminded me who I am in terms of gender and what I am in terms of social status. And I was described in several adjectives which were very unflattering. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for them, that did not deter me and I did not get intimidated.

LOBET: A few years earlier her husband had divorced her, saying publicly she was too stubborn and too hard to control. She had transgressed when she became more educated than he was. She transgressed when she did not retreat after divorce and now she was criticizing the president. Another blow came at the end of that year.

MAN: December 22, 1989 The Weekly Review. Last week, the Green Belt Movement war ordered by the commanding officers of the Central Police Station to leave within 24 hours the headquarters it has occupied for ten years. Despite Maathai’s pleas that she be give more time to organize her departure from the premises the officers stuck to their guns.

LOBET: Maathia was forced out of her office and had to move Green Belt operations to her home. But staying at her house was now dangerous. Professor Vertistine Mbaya is a longtime friends and fellow scientist.

MBAYA: The thing to remember is the amount of money that must have changed hands and would change hands. So when they became angry, we knew they were very angry.

LOBET: In what would mark a historic shift for Kenya, the financing for the Uhuru Park media tower fell apart. The project died.

Friends moved Maathai from house to house. She was jailed in 1991 for protesting deforestation , but was released. And when a group of mothers of young men who were being held as political prisoners approached her and asked her to help them free their sons, she said yes.

MBAYA: And then she came up with a strategy that we would build a camp on Uhuru Park and have a candlelight all-night vigil.

MAATHAI: And we went to this park, which is the Freedom Park, Uhuru Park in Nairobi and went to a corner opposite that building and we camped there to wait for the sons. And it was while we were there that a lot of people came to that site.


MAATHAI: They came to the Freedom Corner and it was almost like a forum where people narrated their torture, what they had gone through, in the torture chambers of a building that was opposite the park called Ngaio House. It was like a truth commission at the park.

MAATHAI: And men were crying tears because of the experience they had gone through. And that was the very first time people had found space to talk about their persecution, to talk about the oppression of that government.


MAATHAI: For three days we were surrounded by security personnel. And every day they brought more security and surrounded the women. And on the third day they came with guns and a lot of soldiers and they completely uprooted the entire camp.


LOBET: In an act that was widely reported and perhaps misinterpreted, some women disrobed after police forced a dispersal. Maathai, who was clubbed unconscious, described that event to the radio program Democracy Now.

MAATHAI: When the government unleashed its terror on us and the people who were with us there, several hundreds of them on that day…the women in the traditional African demonstration of anger and frustration by women. When women are confronted, punished, threatened by men who are old enough to be their sons that is extremely humiliating. Because whatever you do as a man you must not touch your mother, you cannot beat your mother, you cannot hurt your mother, and so what these women were doing to these soldiers is to tell them, “I curse you as my son. for the way you are treating me and I’m your mother!”

LOBET: The protesters sought protection at All Saints Cathedral in Nairobi. The bishop there allowed the women to stay in the church basement for months, until nearly all their sons were freed. What began as a three-day hunger strike became a one-year struggle to open up Kenya's political system.


CURWOOD: You're listening to a special production of Living On Earth--the Green Belt Movement's effort to restore the lands and lives of Kenyans, lead by the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai. As you've heard, in its first twenty years, Kenyans planted millions of fast-growing trees ...allowing people to cut them, too, for fuel or for building, trying to plant more than they cut. In just a moment we’ll learn how Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt movement grew from an effort to reforest Kenya into new strategies to address nutrition, river restoration, and poverty. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.


ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, online at mott dot org, supporting efforts to promote a just, equitable, and sustainable society; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement began as a way to provide fuel close to home for Kenyan women, to encourage planting nutritious food and to green the hillsides. Now the movement encompasses thousands of community nurseries nearly 100 thousand members. But as communities organize they do more than plant trees. Wangari's Maathai's daughter Wanjira explains.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: They plant trees, okay 1000 trees, 2000 trees. Wow, okay, we have fruit, maybe we should sell this fruit. We have too much fruit, so just one thing leads to the other.

CURWOOD: Living on Earth’s Ingrid Lobet continues our story.


LOBET: Green Belt organizers are rarely in the office. They're usually on the road, visiting chapters, bouncing along past the billboards for Nido powdered milk and Kenya Tea, along rutted roads people say by now should be paved with gems for all the money past governments have supposedly spent on them.


LOBET: We reach today’s destination the village of Gitito at sunset. The people of Gitito had been planting trees for shade, firewood, an income for a while, when they decided to address another problem. During the rainy season when food is abundant it spoils easily because there's little power and no refrigeration. During the dry season food is scarce. So Greenbelt organizers taught people here how to dry their food in the sun for when it’s needed. Now children are eating a lot more vegetables. But Green Belt member Joyce Kagiithi says there's something else. She looks at herself differently since the Green Belt Movement came to town.


VOICEOVER: Before, I worked in the farm compound and looked after my children. I couldn't stand up amongst people, or give them my views about things. I was not able to do even the smallest thing in this respect.


VOICEOVER: Professor came here and she showed us that a woman has the right to speak, and when she speaks, she can make things advance. A woman has a right to speak. And now I feel if I speak, things can move forward.


LOBET: Over the years the Green Belt Movement has cut a path quite different from most Western environmental organizations. The inverse of tightly-focused, it can seem like an octopus to the outsider, with tentacles in every conceivable community problem searching for a solution.


MWANGI: I want to show you my goats. I call it Wackip. Wackip was the first goat here. That is his daughter. And also this one is hers.

LOBET: Jephunneh and Joyce Mwangi received one goat and then gave back its first female offspring to another Green Belt member.

MWANGI: When I give them one, the other one goat will remain mine, my property mm? My property, if I want to slaughter it, if I want to sell it, it is mine.


LOBET: And the Mwangis are also advancing into one of Green Belt's newer community income activities--beekeeping.

Jephunneh Mwangi shows off the boxes where he recently began keeping bees; honey brings a good price at the market. The Green Belt movement provides the hives in exchange for the planting of trees. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

MWANGI: I spoke to the Green Belt Movement they told me there is a revolving fund. I can be given some beehive, keep bees, and I'll not pay with money, I’ll pay with planting trees. So I was given ten beehives. That's one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Then I’ll plant 8,000 trees. Not me alone, with my group members. When we plant them, then the beehives will be ours.

LOBET: But for several years now, the Green Belt Movement has reached beyond even its many rural projects and its occasional urban conflicts. Pushed partly by donor organizations, it’s taken on restoring Kenya's degraded forests. The British planted exotic eucalyptus and pines for timber and industrial tea drying. They also invited farmers in to plant crops. So now, the Green Belt movement is reaching out to professional foresters as allies.


KAMAU: My name is Miriam Kamau I'm the forester in charge of Jokeini Forest Station in [?] district of Kenya.

LOBET: The red brown earth here has a sweet deep smell. The sunlight’s branch tips electric green. Miriam Kamau says when the Green Belt Movement came to her and asked if they could plant trees in the forest, she wasn't sure what to think.

KAMAU: I was afraid because I didn't know their intentions. I didn't know if they are prophets of doom. I didn't know if they are coming to witchhunt me. So at first there was that personal fear.

LOBET: But Kamau remembered her father who was not a trained forester, but planted trees anyway. The Green Belt members reminded her of him.

KAMAU: Even most people are telling me to abandon them. And I'm telling you today because I am happy because even the fear I had, it is gone. I find they are a channel for me to learn more, even to advance. I have been able to learn from them and we have been able to do great things. So even I would urge, where Green Belt has not started, let people not fear them.

LOBET: Let people not fear them, Kamau says. But she concedes there were problems with Green Belt planters in the forest.

KAMAU: To start with, you know they are not qualified, so there are some hitches. Like the spacing in the forests they were planting haphazardly. They were planting theirs very closely, close together. I was able to tell them to try and space these trees.

LOBET: This free labor has proved valuable to Kamau. Green Belt workers cleared acres of thorny brush to plant indigenous trees when the forest service was laying off workers. This model may be good for Kenya's forests, but it represents a fundamental shift for Green Belt. Under some pressure from donors, it now only pays for seedlings planted on public land, not those planted at home. To plant in the forest, members have to travel, often on foot, carrying heavy seedlings. Green Belt staffer Njogu Kahare says the organization doesn’t have the money to pay for both.

KAHARE: Green Belt would have liked to be able to compensate or give a token of appreciation for planted trees because it keeps the movement alive! But funding is not, and also what we are asking the women to do in terms of planting trees on public land is so much more demanding. And the Green Belt really needs to get money to support the women. Although you’re not even paying them, provide transport for the seedlings. Don't tell the women to carry the seedlings on their backs! Fundraising for that kind of work.

In dry Machakos, the Green Belt movement has dammed streams, saving residents hours previously spent searching for water. The ponds bring an increased risk of malaria, but locals say it’s worth it. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

LOBET: The fear is that people will simply choose to plant fewer trees, a serious reverse for a movement with tree planting at its heart. There have been reverses before. In fact, now at age 30, Green Belt is revisiting some of those failures with new ideas….In Machakos, people farm the front lines of desiccation. Green Belt failed here to get people to water seedlings, the baby trees were just extra mouths to feed. Zipora Yolodiaca.


VOICEOVER: Before I used to spend one and a half hours looking for water and still I only came back with five gallons, and because five gallons is not enough, we’d often have to walk another hour and a half to fetch another five gallons in the same day.


VOICEOVER: If you have a small baby and no one to care for it, you have to carry the baby and the jerry can to fetch water. When I’m done fetching water, I must organize for lunch. After lunch it is now time to go to where the animals are to make sure they have water.

LOBET: Today, Yolodiaca stands beside a year-round source of water. A pond created by damming the river here. Dams are somewhat unpopular among western environmentalists, but different forms of pooling or water-harvesting are no longer rare in some dry countries.


VOICEOVER: But now I can just come down to the water and my goats drink and go home in a short period of time. With the extra hours, I have time to plant and tend trees with my group, to work on my own farm plot, to plant vegetables, lots of things.

LOBET: Now that there is water, people here are farming things that would have been unimaginable before and are making money from it. They grow tomatoes, potatoes and papaya in holes designed to slow rainy runoff and percolate water back into the river. Nearby communities clamor for similar dams. People in Machakos concede there has been more malaria since they created this standing water. But several people said it's worth it.

MAN: We need water, we don't care about malaria. We have to use nets.

LOBET: More water. More is what people want from Green Belt these days. More planting containers, more spades, more dams. The nation's schools now also want more, thanks to a pilot program Green Belt has begun for 4th, 5th and 6th graders. It's a project that could launch a new constituency for a movement that's mostly middle-aged. With a grant from a U.S. donor, organizers began teaching river ecology at a middle school. And some kids proved very eager. David Nyagi.

NYAGI: There are those who are touched in their inner beings and they like this job.

LOBET: The kids collected leaves from two native Kenyan tree species, fig and Meru Oak, and from eucalyptus, an Australian species introduced by the British.

NYAGI: And then we put them in a pack, then we put them in the river.

LOBET: The kids measure river temperature and make other observations, then let the separate baskets of leaves lie underwater in the current for three weeks. Then they retrieve them. When they retrieve the native leaf packs, the leaves were decomposed down to their leaf skeletons, by insects. The kids counted 16 kinds of mayflies, don flies and other macro-invertebrates.

NYAGI: But in the leaf pack of the eucalyptus we only found one type of macro invertebrate.

LOBET: The lesson, Nyagi says, is that the eucalytus was not contributing to the river’s ecosystem. Seventy Kenyan schools now participate in Leaf Pack but there are requests from 200 more. Meanwhile, Green Belt has been asked to organize tree planting for people in prison. And they have been actively working to turn Kenyan soldiers into tree planters. According to the organization, soldiers have already planted tens of thousands of seedlings. Wangari Maathai.

MAATHAI: Recently I was talking to some other soldiers in Kenya and because they wanted to plant trees and I took advantage of that situation to explain, to show them that although they are soldiers, they are trained to protect the borders of the country, they are trained to protect the country, that, in fact, the country was disappearing below their feet without knowing, while holding their guns. I said, “you hold your gun, what are you protecting? The whole country is disappearing with the wind and the water. When you look at the rivers and they are brown, that is your country disappearing, going into the Indian Ocean. So if you really want to protect, you should hold the gun on your right and a tree seedling on your left. That's when you become a good soldier.”

LOBET: The army, the prisons, the school. The Green Belt Movement is more popular than ever and stretched thin. On one hand, Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Peace Prize brought great recognition to the movement in Kenya and throughout the world, a validation of their work. As Wanjira Maathai says, “we no longer have to convince people.” Members like Eunice Nyokabi feel lifted up. She stands surrounded by her nursery outside Nairobi. For mango alone, her group can easily grow 50 thousand seedlings a year.

NYOKABI: I was very happy for professor. Because she worked here. She didn't go away. She fought here in Kenya. And we are very happy, we as women, for professor. We feel we are people who are recognized . Women, you know African women, we are put down by the men. But now we have the courage to move on with the work to work hard. Yeah. Yeah, we have the courage now to talk about it!

LOBET: Mary Wythera, is old enough to have worked on a British plantation. She went to the airport to greet Wangari when she returned from Oslo with her prize.


VOICEOVER: There's nothing else I feel except happiness. In fact, very, very happy, because the work we have done. And when she comes here, you know she makes us honored, like an honored guest. She makes us feel like if you went to someone's house and they slaughtered a goat.

LOBET: It’s more difficult now for Wangari Maathai's to visit people’s houses. She’s a member of Parliament and assistant minister for the environment. She belongs to the world now.


LOBET: In New York, Brazaville, Rome and Tokyo, she presses the case for topsoil, for Africa’s tropical forests and for better government there and when she’s back home, crowds of people await her for matters as large as the Congo Basin or as small as a village water contract.

WANJIRA MAATHAI: We have about 6,000 invitations. Yes, it's a lot of demand on the work and the staff and the expansion capability of Green Belt. There's a bigger demand for resources. So the idea now is really to create a base, an endowment for the Green Belt Movement, so that the fundraising doesn’t become the driving force of what we do.

LOBET: Grants from donors in Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and the United States have supported the bulk of Green Belt work until now. One kind of new offer makes them wary. As the world gears up to trade in the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, to address the earth's warming, the Green Belt Movement has been approached because their stands of trees could be certified as a place where carbon is stored. But senior staffer Njogu Kahare says they'll have to consider the offers carefully.

KAHARE: The source of the money is people who are polluting somewhere so they are very keen for the planting to succeed and to be certified so that they can trade in that carbon credit. So we have to be very careful about this because we want the community to plant trees because they understand they are caring for the environment, and if they decide down the road to use some of the trees, they should be able to do that.

LOBET: With the increased demands of the Nobel Prize, there's a weariness that shades Wangari Maathai's willing smile. Everyone around her, though, tires before she does. And her message is unchanging. “Don’t talk about planting trees, plant them.” Her hand on the shovel is noticeably firmer than those of the diplomats who sometimes surround her as she plants yet another seedling, this one in New York.


MAATHAI: When God created the earth, He covered it, the way it is here. The soil is supposed to be covered, in its green color. When you see the soil, it is crying to be clothed with green vegetation. That is the nature of the land. So when the soil is exposed, in many ways it is crying out for help, it is naked and it needs to be clothed. It needs color, it needs cloth of green. That is where the concept of the Green Belt Movement came from, it is to clothe the earth with her dress. And I want to appeal to all the people of the world to cover the earth with her cloth of green vegetation.

LOBET: “Remember what millions of hands can do,” Wangari Maathai often reminds people. Next, the Green Belt hopes to carry that message thousands of miles away to some of the most naked land on the planet, the stripped clean slopes of Haiti.

For Living On Earth, I'm Ingrid Lobet.

CURWOOD: Our story on Wangari Maathai and her Kenyan Green Belt Movement was reported and produced by Ingrid Lobet, and edited by Chris Ballman. Thanks to Muriithi Kaburi, David Mutinda, Doug Paterson of KUOW in Seattle, Common Ground Productions, Alan Dater & Lisa Merton, the Pacifica Radio Archive, the American Friends Service Committee Film and Video Library, the Africa Development Foundation, Fenton Communications and Maiinichi Newspapers. Special support was provided by the Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund.

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