Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai Tribute

Tavis pays tribute to one of Kenya’s most recognizable women.

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize—for her democracy and environmental reform campaigns. She was also the first woman in Kenya to earn a Ph.D. and hold a University of Nairobi professorship. Maathai created the Green Belt Movement, Kenya's successful reforestation program and, in '05, was elected the first president of the African Union Economic, Social and Cultural Council. She wrote four books and founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. She recently lost her battle with cancer at age 71.


Tavis: When Wangari Maathai came up with what seemed like a simple idea for encouraging rural women in Kenya to plant trees, no one could ever have imagined the profound results that would grow out of her green belt movement. By empowering women to take control of their environment and indeed their lives, Wangari Maathai became a beacon for a continent and the subject of the PBS documentary, “Taking Root.

[Begin film clip]

“Wangari Maathai”: If you’re going to shed blood because of our land, we will. We have a government in this country that is actually overseeing the destruction of forests and the grabbing of public land. Today, we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking so that humanity stops threatening its life support system. We are called to assist the Earth, to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own.

[End film clip]

Tavis: Wangari Maathai joined us twice on this program; once in 2006 and then again in 2009. Tonight we bring you that most recent conversation in its entirety, which came on the heels of her book, “The Challenge for Africa.

Nice to see you again.

Dr. Wangari Maathai: Thank you, it’s great to be back. Thank you very much.

Tavis: Glad to have you back. Glad to have you back. I want to start with the personal, psychological and philosophical before I get to the practical stuff in this book. Let me start with the personal. This work is so personal for you, and I suspect anyone that becomes a Nobel laureate has something that connects them personally to the work that they do. Why is this so personal for Wangari?

Maathai: Well, I think because of who I am, there is somebody who grew up, was born on a farm. My father, my parents, actually, worked on the land. The first things I did had something to do with the primary natural resources – the water, the soil, the trees, the firewood that I collected.

So for me it is something – and then I go to the university and almost by chance I study biology. So it really becomes something that is so close to my life that when I see it degrading, my eyes notice. I know now that there are many people who do not see when something is happening to the Earth.

Tavis: You say almost by chance you end up studying biology. Tell me what you mean by that.

Maathai: Well, I’m sure I could have studied something else, but I had these wonderful sisters, nuns, who were very keen to guide us. At about the tenth grade they told me that they think I can do well in science, and they almost separated us.

Some went to do teaching, nursing; others were encouraged to do science. I was encouraged to do science. If they had probably encouraged me to go to the teaching profession, I would probably have ended up being a teacher.

Tavis: What do you then – I’m fast-forwarding, obviously – what do you then make of the fact that you end up distinguishing yourself as the first woman in that entire region to get a Ph.D. in those studies?

Maathai: Well, I think sometimes we really don’t know what creates us, but I think it is very important for us to take advantage of the opportunities that we get. I just happened to be a young person who was in the hands of very committed teachers – teachers who thought about us as young kids, who guided us, who taught us with commitment, and who guided us.

I’m quite sure that my shaping, especially at that time, which eventually lands me in the United States of America, in Atchison, Kansas, had a lot to do with my parents and my teachers.

Tavis: What do you recall about first landing in Kansas, first arriving in Kansas from Africa?

Maathai: Well, we first arrived in New York and I took a Greyhound bus all the way to Atchison, Kansas. When I arrived – there were three of us, actually. One of us was a young man who was going to St. Benedict, which was a twin college with Mt. St. Scholastica, which was the girls’ college. Of course when we arrived in Atchison, Kansas, which is a very small town, the whole campus was out to welcome these two young girls from Africa.

It was a great feeling, and I will always be grateful that in the ’60s, we all know how the ’60s were in the United States, and this was almost an all-white girls’ college, but we were received so warmly and we spent four years, for me, the best years of my life, in Kansas.

Tavis: When you look back on that now, how do you contextualize that you were in Africa with a whole bunch of white folk who you were being warmly received by and welcomed by and befriended by, while outside of Kansas, all around the country, certainly in the South, people who looked like you were catching hell?

Maathai: Well, it was a big contradiction, because obviously a mild apartheid system was actually in place in Kenya so it was not as if we didn’t know that Black people are discriminated against. But we were too young to even understand the reasons and the history behind it, so when we came to Kansas there was a bit of a contradiction in the sense that on the campus, people were so wonderfully nice, but when you got out of the campus you could see the discrimination.

On weekends, I remember that on weekends – by the way, there were already two Kenyans, young men, in St. Benedict, and they’re the ones who introduced us into the life of Atchison. I know over the weekend they would take us to places where we could hang out, and we noticed that whenever we went we were with other Black people and they never – they told us they couldn’t take us anywhere else.

So we didn’t ordinarily mix, and of course then the civil rights movement broke out and we saw what was happening with Martin Luther King and all the people who were in the forefront of that movement.

So for us it was – but I guess, as I say, it is not something we didn’t know, because Kenya itself was a very – we lived in a life where we were separated into really three groups. There were the Africans, the Asians and the Europeans. But obviously as young people in our twenties, early twenties, it was amazing to see this in America because we all thought of America as this great nation where everything is wonderful.

Tavis: You found out that wasn’t always the case.

Maathai: Yeah, we did.

Tavis: (Laughs.) Great country that she is. How much of what ails your country of Kenya and the continent has to do with not enough young Black Africans getting the opportunity to get an education like you were granted?

Maathai: Well, I think 40 years after independence I would say that we should be in a position where we have created universities, we have created professors. I belong to the first generation of local professors and obviously there should be many professors behind me now because I would naturally be retired.

Part of what I address in the book is the fact that the leadership – the leadership – has not invested adequately in education. Obviously, without education you will have a lot of people who will not get the opportunities that I had.

Even though we still have a lot of students who come to America and go to many other countries, developed countries, the greatest number of people are still at home. So we need to develop universities and make them good universities so that they get the kind of education that really empowers them and gives them this desire to perform and to accomplish and to keep moving and not feel satisfied with (unintelligible).

But I also want to say that the opportunity of going out of your country to go to another country, like me coming to America in the ’60s, is enormous, and even here I do encourage that in a country like this, there are colleges that have programs that send the American students to other countries is very, very important.

That exposure is extremely important for young people as they grow up, so as to know that the world is not just there around your village; the world is big.

Tavis: Let me ask a question that is admittedly more psychological and philosophical, but I think it is at the center of this text, which is what it means today to be an African. Let me ask you your take on that – what does it mean today to be an African, in your own words?

Maathai: Well, part of what I’m talking about here in the challenge is to say that there is absolutely nothing that prevents the African person to be the best. At this stage, we ought to be sitting amongst the table where nations are sitting, with the pride, with the confidence, because of what we have accomplished.

Because getting rid of colonialism is something that we should be very proud about, but we can only be very proud of having gotten rid of colonialism if we can show what we have done with the freedom and with the space we created for ourselves.

Therefore, what I’m saying is that to be an African today, something you’re very proud, but you also feel that you are not everything you could be. You are challenged – you are challenged by the legacy that you bring to the table, you are challenged by the inability to move forward as fast as you could, you are challenged by the perception that the world has about you.

Therefore, to be an African is both something that is great but also something that is very challenging.

Tavis: How would you respond to someone who would read this book and say that the damage done – the residue, the remnants of colonialism in that part of the world, in your part of the world, in Africa – is so significant that it is wrong of you; it’s unfair of anybody to say we no longer have excuses in Africa?

Maathai: Well, I think that it is good to be able to say that – we don’t want to say that we do not think that that legacy is important, because that legacy is very important and you cannot wipe it out because it’s part of our heritage.

But it does – it cannot be the reason why you cannot manage your current situation. It cannot be the reason why you want to continue being corrupt at the expense of your own people. It cannot be the reason why you want to violate human rights of your own people. It cannot be the reason why you want to misuse aid or loans that you get in the name of your people.

That’s why, because we use it so much as a way of explaining our inadequacies, I wanted to say I accepted that there are problems that we have come – we have a baggage that we carry with us, and that’s why I say a legacy of woes.

But that is not an excuse for that to continue, because 40 years down the road for how long are we going to continue doing what, if we were not doing, I am quite sure we could have gone forward.

We have examples, because there are others, like Southeast Asia, which was also colonized – much longer than we were, actually, although they didn’t suffer the legacy of slavery, for example, that the African people suffered. But we were colonized for less than 100 years. Some of them were colonized for close to 300 years.

So the challenge is not to use that as an excuse. Not to say that because I went through this, through this, through this, I cannot do it. The thing to say is that I overcame that, and that’s powerful, that’s great. You ought to be – we ought to be sufficiently empowered to say we overcame that and guess what? We are doing very well now.

We are managing ourselves much better, we are respecting the rights of our people, we are standing up for ourselves and we are, as leaders – now, when I say “we,” I’m talking about leadership, and I usually like to put myself there because I belong to that group of the very privileged Africans, so that I can say that we are protecting our people, we are doing the right thing. But we can’t continue to do the wrong things and make colonialism the excuse.

Tavis: I accept that. You mentioned aid a moment ago in your answer, and I want to ask you a question about aid. First I want to read a quote that I put on this card because I wanted to make sure I got it right

There’s a quote that I want to share with you from an op-ed piece you wrote in “The Los Angeles Times,” and then I want to follow up with a question, if I might.

The quote says, “That Obama is of African heritage sends a signal; one I hope all Africans heed. The time for excuses for poor leadership is over. Africans must not sit back and expect that Obama will lavish aid and attention on the continent simply because he has a Kenyan father. They should demand the leadership they want rather than accept the leadership they get,” close quote from Wangari Maathai, “L.A. Times,” March 16th of this year.

There’s those two words I want to come to – aid and attention. Let me start with the aid and then I’ll come to the attention. Where aid is concerned, there’s another author who has gone a bit farther than you and has made the rounds of media in this country and has got a lot of attention for suggesting – not for suggesting, for saying, in fact, that the U.S. and other countries, for that matter, ought to cut off their aid to Africa, period – cold, stop it cold turkey. Five years from now, no more aid for Africa.

They ought to be told that in five years all the aid is going to stop. You’ve got your own thoughts about aid. Is that too extreme, or is that about right?

Maathai: Well, I must say I’m looking for a copy of the book by Madame Moyo. I want to see her arguments. She was working with the World Bank, so I’m quite sure she’s talking from information and it’s very good to see where she’s basing her arguments so strongly.

Because the truth of the matter is people do need resources. People do need capital, people do need technology, people do need advice, and even rich and bigger countries in America do borrow money from others.

Tavis: America borrows money from others.

Maathai: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)

Maathai: So it is not as if to borrow is bad. It’s not as if to get aid is bad, in my opinion, because it is true, we don’t have – for example, we don’t have medicine, we don’t have a strong infrastructure, we don’t have hospitals. So I don’t think that there is anything inherently wrong in giving.

What I think is bad and what we need to work on is to make sure that the resources, borrowed or given or advanced, are spent for the purpose for which they were given.

Now, that has to be done partly by the leadership, and that’s why I put a lot of emphasis on the role of leadership, but also on citizens – that citizens must also be charged with responsibility. They must rise up and begin to hold their leaders accountable.

Unfortunately, many of our people, as you know, they are not educated, they are not very well informed, and so they are still very loyal to their ethnicity, which in my book I refer to as micro-nationalities. So they tend to be over-influenced by their leaders and who take advantage of them.

But that’s not an excuse, and therefore I would say, personally, I would not say don’t help us, because I’m not even sure that if we were to say, for example, take Kenya and say, President Kibaki, you are not going to get a penny from anybody. I wonder whether President Kibaki would get rid of all his cars, or his private jet, in order for his people to get what they are looking for, in order for him to be able to feed them.

I am not sure that he would say, “I’m going to reduce the army to about half so that I can spend that money on education, on medicine, on infrastructure.” I think that we can get very frustrated by our leaders and decide stop any help, but I’m not very sure that that is the right attitude or the right steps to take.

Tavis: The second issue beyond aid I mentioned was attention. And to be sure, there are parts of Africa that has its share of problems. I wonder, though, whether or not you think those problems are exacerbated by the kind of negative attention that the continent gets courtesy of certain media outlets?

Maathai: Well, I think one of the disadvantages we have in Africa is that we don’t have our own press that can give our story from our own perspective, so we depend very much on outside media. I don’t know why – I guess it’s what sells, that when you have negative information from Africa, that sells. But when you have good things happening, it doesn’t sell.

So you hardly ever hear of good things that are being done. You don’t hear of good leaders who are really struggling and trying. Instead, you often hear when there is a crisis, that’s what hits the headline. But I don’t know how that can be changed.

Tavis: I want to turn our conversation now – because this, again, is at the center of the book – the park protests at Uhuru is a powerful example of how, as a citizen, you courageously and with conviction and commitment born of your character stood up even against the president of your country at the time.

But I want to come back to this role of the citizenry, because you’re right to talk about leadership. But I want to understand what the challenge for Africa is where the citizenry is concerned. Talk to the citizens. Talk to me about the citizens of your country – of your country and of the continent, and the role that they have to play to turn this around.

Maathai: Well, see, citizens – in many countries today, I know we have gone through a difficult time but we have long ago left the era of Idi Amin, the era of Bokassa, and the era of Idi Amin, when anybody who tried to raise their voices would literally end up dead or incarcerated or tortured.

Today, we have a much more democratic space in many countries in Africa, and even within the African Union there is a deliberate effort to promote good governance – so much so that today, if you come to power without using the democratic process, the African Union refuses to admit you in to that club.

Now, that’s a diversion from what it used to be like. So I would say the citizens of Africa have a much better – have a much greater space now to express their desire for better governance, to choose leaders who can really guide them, who can manage their countries more responsibly, and to refuse to be divided by their what I would call tribal leaders, and to be guided by people who conveniently just want power and talk in the language they want to hear just because they want power.

Now, there is a lot of civic education in Africa, a lot of organizations that are doing civic education in order to educate the people on good governance, democratic systems, justice systems. As we do that it’s very important for the citizens to not sit back and hope that the leaders will emerge.

Yet they are the ones who are casting the vote. The fact that so many countries now have leaders who have been elected is a responsibility of the citizen. It is the citizen who is casting the vote.

So if the citizen allows himself to be bribed by the candidate, to be persuaded by ethnicity, to be persuaded that because he is not the one who is being tortured it’s okay for another one to be tortured, or it’s okay for another one, especially another one belonging to another ethnic group, to have his rights violated, as long as we as citizens allow that to happen, then we will get leaders we deserve, almost.

Therefore we cannot then complain too much because we are responsible, because those people are able to stand before us and say, “I was elected.”

Tavis: Wangari Maathai paid a terrible price for her environmental and political activism. She and her followers were beaten and jailed, but they never lost their will. Of her passing, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said, “She will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights and democracy. Her contribution will forever be celebrated and honored.”

Wangari Maathai passed away on Monday at the age of 71.

“Female One:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.

“Announcer:” Nationwide Insurance supports Tavis Smiley. With every question and every answer, Nationwide Insurance is proud to join Tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. Nationwide is on your side.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: October 7, 2011 at 1:18 pm