It’s a sticky, stifling day here in St. Paul — “Africa hot,” an old friend always used to say when intense summer heat made its brief annual stop in Minnesota. That recollection reminded me of my deadline for Trent’s request to write about our interview with Wangari Maathai.
The day we interviewed the Nobel Peace Prize winner, over three years ago now, was about as opposite as possible from today. Eight inches of slushy snow greeted us that morning as we drove to the Holiday Inn in Minneapolis where Maathai was staying. We still managed to arrive early enough to soundproof the room, set up mics and laptops, test levels, and make sure Krista had some breakfast.
The hotel space we’d reserved — a dark, bland, deflated suite on an upper floor (to avoid traffic noise seeping in) — was sadly the best, most convenient option given Maathai’s tight schedule. That drab room was brought to life, though, the moment she entered in a vibrant red-blue-gold dress and headwrap, her simultaneously gracious and powerful person filling the space.
During the interview, I sat in the bedroom area on the floor transcribing on my laptop. My fingers were tired by the time we started to wrap up, 90 minutes later, and then one of my favorite SOF moments happened.
Krista concluded the interview, and Mitch asked Maathai for music recommendations, specifically songs she remembered singing during her environmental activism in Kenya, that we could maybe include in the program. Her reply:
“I would have to ask them (laughs). Because we do sing sometimes, but those are very local songs. Like, one song I always sing when we are together with the women — here comes my faith — because there is a lot of our — people are still very religious, and so quite often when I’m talking to them I use religious songs. And one song that we always sing is one that says ‘there is no other god, there is no other god but Him, there is no other power but Him.’ It is like a chorus. You want me to sing for you?” After drinking a sip of cold, bad hotel coffee, she continued, “And this kind of song would be appropriate because when we are singing, when we are moving, we always want it to be peaceful, non-violent, so singing religious songs was very common…. We go?”
She cleared her throat, and off she went (her song is included in this video).
I’ve listened to this song so many times in the past three years. I remembered Trent saying he’d sing it to his young boys, and now I do the same with my 6-month old son when rocking him to sleep. I don’t get the words right, but I don’t care. It reminds me of strength, wisdom, compassion — things I hope to inspire in him.