On Being with Krista Tippett

Wangari Maathai

Planting the Future

Last Updated

September 29, 2011

Original Air Date

April 6, 2006

A remarkable Kenyan woman and environmentalist speaks from experience about the links between ecology, human flourishing, war and peace, and democracy. And she shares her thoughts on where God resides.

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Image of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She's the author of Replenishing the Earth and Unbowed: A Memoir.


September 29, 2011

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: She is a biologist by training with flashing black eyes and a presence that fills the room. Wangari Maathai received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Sitting across from her, it is not hard to imagine that this woman stood up to a dictator and won, and that she’s fought off encroaching desert by planting 30 million trees and counting. Wangari Maathai knows what many in the West have failed yet to grasp: that ecological crises are often the hidden root cause of war. She speaks from experience this hour about the link between trees and soil, human flourishing, and democracy. She even shares her thoughts on where God resides.

WANGARI MAATHAI: The church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if he is omnipresent, he is in Rome but he can also be in Kenya at the same time, if he is omnipresent.

MS. TIPPETT: From APM, American Public Media, I’m Krista Tippett. Today on On Being, “Planting the Future.”

Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She was the first woman in central Africa to earn a Ph.D. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women after she became aware of the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. She founded the Green Belt Movement there to create designated areas of park, farm, and uncultivated land around communities. For a quarter-century, she battled powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. But her movement has now spread to over 600 communities in Kenya and into over 30 countries.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Wangari Maathai in 2006. And I learned that there is a powerful faith behind her passion — a fusion of Christianity, real-world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. Wangari Maathai grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she is a practicing Catholic to this day. The Kikuyu culture worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya, Africa’s second-highest mountain, as the place where God lives. And when Wangari Maathai looks back on her childhood now, she realizes that Kikuyu culture had an intuitive sense of environmental balance, based on both pragmatic and spiritual teachings.

MS. MAATHAI: And one of the things that I may have inherited without being conscious about it, because my people were already Christians by the time I was growing up, is the fact that my people were very close to nature. And I like to give a story, for example, that reflects that, that when I was a young child, I used to collect the firewood for my mother. And I remember my mother telling me not to collect any firewood from this tree called a fig tree, the so-called strangler fig tree. And when I asked her why not, she told me, “That is a tree of God. We don’t cut it. We don’t burn it. We don’t use it. They live for as long as they can, and they fall on their own when they are too old.”

Now, I didn’t think much about that until much, much later. Indeed, when I became environmentally conscious, I remembered that story. I also recognized that in the period of, maybe, between 1920s to 1960s, a lot of those fig trees had actually been cut, because, having become Christians, the missionaries were very eager to get rid of all these trees that reminded the natives of a god that they did not relate to, because they needed to relate to another god, and this new god was a god who was worshipped in a house called church. But the god they were relating to prior to that was a god that they worshipped under these trees, such as that fig tree. Not every one of them, but they definitely were among the sacred trees.

MS. TIPPETT: And what did your mother mean? What was it about the fig tree? Was there more explanation to that, about what it was about it that was holy or of God?

MS. MAATHAI: Well, the point I want to emphasize here is these trees, because they are so huge and because they were never cut, they actually provided stabilization of the land, because these are highlands. They protected these people from landslides.

MS. TIPPETT: Physically, they protected people.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, physically they protected people.

MS. TIPPETT: There’s nothing mystical about this.

MS. MAATHAI: Yes, precisely. They physically protected the land from sliding, because it’s so steep. And because they have roots that go very deep and, as I say, because they are not cut, they last forever. They are able to go down into the underground rock. They are able to break the rock, and they are able to bring some of the subterranean water system up nearer to the surface, and so they were responsible for many of the streams that dotted the landscape. So in many ways, therefore, they were part of the water system in the area, and so they served a very important purpose. Of course, nobody quite recognized that until now, maybe. People are beginning to see, well, where are these trees, because we do get a lot of landslides now, by the way.

MS. TIPPETT: So there’s a really pragmatic component to that religious teaching.

MS. MAATHAI: Yes. And sometimes in religion, whether it is Christian, Buddhism, or Judaism, we have these teachings we read in the Bible. The Bible tells you to do this. It doesn’t tell you why, but sometimes it is because there is some coded wisdom …

MS. TIPPETT: Human wisdom, right.

MS. MAATHAI: Human wisdom that people have accumulated in the course of generations, and sometimes it becomes a ritual, sometimes it becomes a cultural practice, sometimes it’s associated with a festival. But when you look into many of these activities that people did before they were influenced by a foreign culture, there was always a very good reason why they did it. It was very much part of their way of having learned how to live within the environment in which they found themselves.

MS. TIPPETT: Wangari Maathai often refers to the biblical Genesis creation story when she speaks about the morality of environmental care, and she urges people to find new meaning in that story. For example, God celebrates the goodness of every aspect of the creation, she points out, and God would surely not celebrate human decimation of soil, forests, and rivers. Wangari Maathai believes that the Christianity she knew as a child in colonial Africa singled out the part of the Genesis story where God instructs Adam and Eve to dominate the natural world and subdue it.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. MAATHAI: Perhaps in those days, and especially as missionaries and explorers and settlers moved into new grounds, perhaps it really did look to them like their resources were unlimited.


MS. MAATHAI: But in the past, therefore, I would say that the Christian faith — and I can only talk about the Christian faith, because that’s my heritage — has not really played the role of a custodian, such as now you hear theologians emphasizing that you really should be.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. I think there’s an awakening about that within Christianity.

MS. MAATHAI: Absolutely. I guess that’s what we should call it, is an awakening. It’s a good awakening. I don’t really think I remember very much of religious teaching of how to take care of the environment. I studied biology.


MS. MAATHAI: So I think that it was more out of the science and the understanding of the ecological systems, and the observations I made in my country, especially the damage that seemed to be happening between the time I left my country in 1960, came to the United States for five and a half years, then went back. And in that period, my country had become independent. It had introduced new ways of commercial agriculture. It had introduced cash crops, and these were now growing in the areas where there used to be wood lots. Levees, which used to be nice and clean, were no longer clean. They were full of silt. So these observations for me aroused an interest that there must be something that is happening that is bad, but it wasn’t the faith. And I wish it was, because it should have been. I should have been reading the book of Genesis a little more closely.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. So clearly, there was a huge change in your country between those years that you left and came back. And when I think about those years, the early ’60s in the United States, it was clearly a really dramatic period here as well — not a very environmentally conscious period in this culture.


MS. TIPPETT: Although the civil rights movement was going on then. How did that time in the States flow into the perspective you took back to Kenya?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah. Now, I want to say that sometimes, you know, things happen around in your life, and you’re not consciously absorbing them, and you’re not consciously asking yourself, now, what am I learning out of all this?


MS. MAATHAI: But, indeed, what you are observing, what you are reading, what you are seeing influences you, sometimes in your subconscious, and I’m quite sure that the civil rights movement in the United States in the ’60s greatly influenced my sense of justice, my sense of the need to respect human rights, my sense of respecting the rule of law, which later on became very useful when, I accidentally, I would say, became an activist for human rights issues, for women rights issues. And there was no effort for me to do that, and I’m quite sure that if I had not come to America at that time, I would probably not have made human rights issues an issue. It would probably not have struck me that somebody else’s rights were being violated.

MS. TIPPETT: Really?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, sometimes, you know, you are a product of the society in which you grow. And quite often it takes a special kind of mind to break away from the norm, to know or to believe that what everybody’s accepting as norm is not right and to question it, and to almost have people say, “What’s wrong with you? Everybody else thinks this is all right. Why do you think it’s wrong?” And I think that it is sometimes, because you have escaped that society, and you have gone to another place, and you have seen your challenges.

MS. TIPPETT: Your vision has changed. You’ve been opened up.

MS. MAATHAI: Your vision has changed. Your perception has changed. Your consciousness has changed. And so you come, and you tell people, “Now, how can you accept that?” And they want to say, “What?”

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, because you suddenly see it.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, you suddenly see it, and you see it so clearly, so you’re passionate about it, and sometimes people here don’t understand what burns you.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, it’s so true. As I was reading about the work you’re doing — I mean, a tree is a simple thing, right?


MS. TIPPETT: But when you talk about the observations you started to make in listening, initially, it sounds like, in the ’70s to women in Africa, and you started to suddenly see this simple equation between trees and having to walk far for water and soil erosion and lack of work and lack of fodder for animals and malnutrition, and you kind of wonder how that simple equation had broken apart. I suppose that’s a very common human paradox, but …

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, I think that is so true. One of the things that happens — and this happens to us whether it is because we are going through a colonial experience like we were, or you’re going through an industrial experience like many people would experience in a country like America and other industrialized countries. What happens is that you slowly moved from the world you knew, and you move into another world, and most of the times, you move into a world that you believe is better. That’s why we are told this is development.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, progress.

MS. MAATHAI: This is progress. And we accept it. And it takes us some time to realize, “Wait a minute.” Maybe it was not all good progress. Some aspects of it is not quite all right, and you begin to see how things have become disconnected. And now the challenge is to see how can you connect them again. How can you make people see the linkages?

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. That, in fact, are organic.


[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas. Today with Nobel Peace Prize laureate and environmental activist Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, while she was the first woman department chair ever at the University of Nairobi.

MS. TIPPETT: So how did you start planting trees?

MS. MAATHAI: Well, in the University of Nairobi, there were very few women. There were actually — there were originally two of us, and then three. And we were being very badly treated, because the university had never dealt with women academic members of staff, so they didn’t have terms of service. But one thing they knew is that we should not enjoy the same terms of service as men, but they didn’t know how to draft our terms of service.

But before they got there, we were complaining like mad that we should not be discriminated against, and as part of this campaign, I joined the National Council of Women to represent the Association of University Women. Now, you’ll remember, in 1975, the first United Nations Women’s Conference was in Mexico, and I found myself in a forum where Kenyan women were discussing the agenda that we should take to Mexico. And I came in. I had my own agenda about the discrimination of women …

MS. TIPPETT: In universities.

MS. MAATHAI: … at the University of Nairobi. But when I got there, then I listened to what the rural women were talking about. And it was the rural women’s story that actually struck me, and I completely forgot my story, because for me, by comparison, I was complaining about minutia — by comparison to what these women were really asking for. They were asking for water. They were asking for food, nutritious food. They were asking for energy, which was mainly firewood. And they were saying they have no income.

And when I listened to what they were saying, it so happened that many of these women also came from the highlands, in the same highlands where I grew up. And it struck me that in that period of less than 10 years, so much change had taken place in the environment, that water was no longer clean, yet when I was a child, I would go to the river, and I fetch water for my mother. I would come home. We would drink it. We didn’t even boil it. And there was no firewood, and as a child, I was collecting firewood for my mother in the wood lots, but all these wood lots had been cleared to make way for tea and coffee. And because of the new commercial agriculture and because of clearing the bushes, now there was massive soil erosion and leaching of agrichemicals into the water. So the water was no longer clean.

And that’s why, in my acceptance speech, I talked about the fact that in this …

MS. TIPPETT: For the Nobel Prize?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, for the Nobel Prize. You remember, I mentioned that I was shocked by the fact that the stream where I used to play as a child with tadpoles dried up, and the fig tree that my mother had talked about had been cut to make way for tea. And so I told the women, “Now, you know what I think? We should plant trees.”

MS. TIPPETT: You started with seven trees. Is that right?

MS. MAATHAI: I planted seven trees. Five died, two survived.

MS. TIPPETT: In downtown Nairobi.

MS. MAATHAI: In downtown Nairobi. And the two are still alive, which is fantastic. But the important thing for me was to see the linkage, and that’s what I try to encourage people to do. If you’re going to do anything for the environment, you have to see what has been disconnected.

MS. TIPPETT: It really strikes me that — how important it was, that proximity that you had to that land, and also that you saw what a short period of time it had taken for such destruction to happen.

MS. MAATHAI: Yes, yes.

MS. TIPPETT: But maybe that also empowered you to think that taking some simple steps could, as you say, you know, reconnect what had been disconnected.

MS. MAATHAI: Yes, yes. Because I immediately could see that if you planted trees, you’d protect the soil from soil erosion. You’d provide the firewood for the women. If they planted fruit trees, they can supplement their diets. The trees grow very fast, so they can easily sell these trees and make an income. So I quickly saw how the tree could solve the problems.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I think that part of your story is so important, because when people are presented, I think, especially with these great ecological disasters or impending disasters …

MS. MAATHAI: Yes. Yes.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s the same thing with political problems. It seems so enormous …


MS. TIPPETT: … that an individual person wonders what they could possibly do. But, I mean, your story is actually one of looking at what you knew, what you were close to, and seeing what had gone wrong and seeing, in a very basic way, what you could do to move it back right.

MS. MAATHAI: Absolutely. And I really think that that’s part of what the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw, was the simplicity, but also the complexity. The fact that here’s something that is being done by individuals at the grassroots level, but it also gradually had the capacity to get to the decision-makers and make the decision-makers sit up either to stop you or to control you, because they felt like you were threatening them. And …

MS. TIPPETT: And that two trees that live can become 30 million trees, which is pretty remarkable.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, indeed, because of the mobilization. But I would say, since we are talking about the faith, that to a very large extent, if I had, perhaps, not gone to school in a Catholic school, in a school that was run, managed by sisters, by nuns, at a time when missionaries were really very serious about values — they were very concerned about values, and especially the value of service — I think I would probably have turned out to be a different kind of a person. Because for me, as I said earlier, sometimes people don’t have to tell you, “This is what you need to believe in, and this is the value you need to embrace.” You just observe. And when people ask me, “Who are the people who inspired you?” — these are some of the people who actually inspired me, these nuns, that these, at the time, beautiful women, young women, and I remember thinking, now, why did they leave their country to come here? Why didn’t they get married and have families? And, of course, the answer was because they wanted to serve Jesus. They even wore rings, because they told us they were married, spiritually, to Jesus.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right, right.

MS. MAATHAI: I really couldn’t see what is the benefit. We are so used to doing things, because we benefit. There is something — we always want to know, why are you doing that? Because there must be something you’re going to get. When you look at nuns like that, what do they get out of that?

MS. TIPPETT: And isn’t that an interesting way, also, to think about — you and I were talking earlier about how the Christian church in general, Christian theology, has really not paid attention to the environment. In fact, has interpreted some of the stories and teachings that are in there in a way that has been destructive to the environment, and there’s a — people are waking up to that. But that’s an interesting way to think of that, how even traditions which have something to correct can look to other virtues, right?

MS. MAATHAI: Yes, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And besides just the teaching on the environment, this virtue of service that is there and has been very strong.

MS. MAATHAI: Mm-hmm. And that virtue is really what we are calling upon to take care of the environment, because we are saying we want to protect the environment — not so that we can use and not for our own purpose. We want to protect biodiversity — not so that we can use these forms of life, because some of them we don’t even know they’re there — but it is to say that you’re not doing it, because of something beneficial that you’re going to get, something tangible. And that’s a very important experience, especially today, because I find — even in my own country, I find that every time you want to tell people, “Do this, it is good to do it,” people want to say, “What do I get out of it?” Now, of course, for the nuns, they will tell you, “I’ll go to Heaven.” Well, OK, fine, but …

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a real long-term goal.

MS. MAATHAI: It’s a long-term goal, and we are still here on Earth.

MS. TIPPETT: Those first women who you had this conversation with, you paid attention to what their needs were, and then you planted these trees. I wanted to know, you know, what effect that had on them, on these women, in their lives.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, one of those women, actually, that I like to remember, was a woman called Priscilla Mereka. She came from the Presbyterian women.

MS. TIPPETT: Was she a rural resident, also?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, she was a Kenyan, and she was representing the women’s guild in the National Council of Women. So she’s one of those women who reasoned, who were presenting. And later on, when I said, “Why don’t we plant trees?” — and we formed a small committee within the National Council of Women, she became a member of that committee, and we worked together for many years.

Unfortunately, she died some years ago, maybe about 10 years ago now. But by the time she died, she had completely transformed her landscape so very much, that when they were putting her remains to rest, everybody in the community was praising her, not only for the work that she had done in the church, but the fact that she had brought the Green Belt Movement into her area, that she had facilitated and encouraged the planting of, literally, millions of trees and that — one thing that I remember women saying is that, you know, how you always see these women carrying their firewood on their back …

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm.

MS. MAATHAI: … and there is a typical rope that they use, usually made out of animal hide. And the women said at her funeral that you never see any woman today with that rope, because it’s not necessary. No women need carry firewood, because the firewood is at the household. And that, I thought, was such a legacy for her.

[Sound bite of music]

MS. TIPPETT: On our blog, we recently posted a written follow-up conversation with Wangari Maathai about the themes in her new book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World. You’ll find that at OnBeing.org. She has some things to say about the meaning of trees and why trees matter both spiritually and environmentally. She also describes how she sustains her hope.

And as always, you can get downloadable MP3s of this week’s show, and all our shows, through our e-mail update, our podcast, and our home page. Discover all of this at OnBeing.org.

Coming up, more from her on how ecological crises are the hidden root cause of peace and war, even for the richest countries. Also, Wangari Maathai’s thoughts on where God resides.

I’m Krista Tippett. This program comes to you from APM, American Public Media.


MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett. Today, “Planting the Future,” with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai. A biologist by training, she is a celebrated environmentalist and activist for global democracy. She served as the Assistant Kenyan Minister of the Environment from 2003 to 2007. We’re exploring Wangari Maathai’s story and her spiritual and moral bearings.

And conversation with her does lead repeatedly back to her sense of the immorality and violent consequences of human recklessness with the environment. In recent years, for example, she’s become a key global voice on the issue of encroaching desert, or desertification. This ecological catastrophe now threatens the southwestern United States and China, as well as the African continent. About 1 billion people in over 100 countries are potentially affected.

Wangari Maathai has been working on the front lines of this crisis for over three decades. And when it awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said this: “When we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects, but it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flash point.” The Committee noted that in places as diverse as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Again, Wangari Maathai.

MS. MAATHAI: It is extremely important and especially for people who live in highly industrialized and rich countries, because people who live in such countries have a feeling that even if they don’t have resources within their borders, they can get them from wherever those resources are. But even if you can buy those resources, even there there is a limit to what extent you can get those resources and not create a conflict. Because remember, the resources that are left behind, people have to fight over them. And because the world is now so interconnected that when conflict anywhere in the world, sometimes they come right into your living room, either through television — or like now with the Americans being a superpower, a very influential member of the United Nations, if there is conflict somewhere, we are very quick to say we need peacekeeping forces; and these peacekeeping forces are quite often soldiers from areas where there is peace.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

MS. MAATHAI: So suddenly you realize you may be in peace, but it is your son or your husband who now has to go and try to keep peace where peace has been threatened. And so it becomes really an important issue for all of us, whether we are rich or we are poor. Recently, I was in Japan. I was very lucky, because I came across a word called mottainai, which is a Japanese Buddhist concept that is entrenched in the Japanese culture, which encourages people not to waste resources. And this was especially true, they told me …

MS. TIPPETT: And it’s a spiritual concept.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, it’s a spiritual concept. And in fact, this aspect was brought out to me by a monk; I think his name is Monk Mori from Kyoto Temple. We went in and he had heard me use that word publicly and he said, “I’m so happy you’re using that word mottainai, because it is a word that Japanese don’t use anymore because they feel embarrassed to say don’t waste resources, because they have so much, or receive resources with gratitude, receive what you get from the Mother Earth with gratitude, or from nature with gratitude. And we usually don’t think about that. We don’t usually thank Nature for giving us what she does.”


MS. MAATHAI: And he reminded me of the Christian concept of let us be custodians of the environment, of the resources, rather than of …

MS. TIPPETT: Stewardship is a good Christian word.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, the stewardship. And I’m very happy that theologians now are really more and more encouraging us to think of ourselves as custodians, stewards, rather than domineering masters, you know. So this coming from a country like Japan is very, very …

MS. TIPPETT: It’s very interesting.

MS. MAATHAI: It’s very interesting, and it’s very, very good. And I was very happy that, because it was their word, when I started using it they said, “Oh, this is so wonderful.” I said, “Yeah.” And especially, because in the industrialized countries like America you have the technology, you have the capital, you have the skills, and you can therefore help to save the resources that are being used in the world. But see, if you become wasteful, if you are not grateful, if you don’t recycle, because why should you recycle when you can buy more, you must always remember, but there are billions out there who don’t have enough even to survive, let alone to decide whether they should reduce or reuse.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s hard for people to — for those billions to seem real, you know, to influence little tiny decisions that are made in the course of daily life about whether to recycle something.

MS. MAATHAI: Precisely. They look distant, because quite often we don’t see their faces except when they are dying and their faces are brought to the television in our living rooms, and then we are very quick to call our representatives and tell them, “Do something about these people who are dying in this corner of the world.” But it’s happening all the time.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, on Being — conversation about meaning, faith, ethics, and ideas. Today, “Planting the Future,” with Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai.

Up close to Wangari Maathai’s visceral courage and hope, it’s easy to forget that she was suppressed for a quarter-century, under the autocratic regime of the former Kenyan ruler Daniel arap Moi. Arap Moi publicly called her a madwoman. Her Green Belt Movement was driven largely by disenfranchised rural women, improbably confronting powerful elites with a mandate to clear-cut Kenyan forests for economic development. Wangari Maathai was arrested and beaten for protesting illegal logging and land grabbing and once for leading an historic march of women demanding the release of their sons from Daniel arap Moi’s political prisons.

MS. TIPPETT: So much of your work has been with women, and you write a lot about the balance of power between men and women. And I wanted to ask if you think of that, the balance of power between men and women, also as a sustainability issue?

MS. MAATHAI: The truth of the matter is we are all resources anyway. We are a human resource. And the biggest problem that we have had, especially in the women’s movement, is trying to convince the other half that we are a very important resource and we do make great contributions, and therefore we should be respected, we should be appreciated, our work should be quantified, we should be compensated, and that we should not be taken for granted. Now, unfortunately, 30 years ago, in 1975, as I said earlier, when we were meeting to go to Mexico, we were going there, because we wanted to …

MS. TIPPETT: For the United Nations Women’s Conference, the first one.

MS. MAATHAI: … Women’s Conference, the very first one. And it was at that conference that we declared the women decade. Obviously we have made great strides, and we should be very, very proud of the strides we have made. But it is true that women are still a very unappreciated resource in many societies. I can see how quickly women, even very competent women, are sacrificed on the altar of political convenience.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s a strong sentence.

MS. MAATHAI: Mm-hmm.

MS. TIPPETT: Over these years, it’s not all been happy ceremonies planting trees. I know you’ve been scorned and you’ve been pursued and you’ve been beaten. You’ve stood up to powerful forces. And you didn’t know, when all this started, that it would become so large, that you would found this great movement, that you would win the Nobel Peace Prize, I mean, but what kept you going? What were the resources you drew on in the hardest times?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah. Now, again, I would probably say that that is where the experience and the being molded by people of faith made a lot of difference. That although I was not professing my faith, I’m quite sure that I was grounded in that moral fiber of wanting to do the right thing. I was so sure that this was the right thing, because I could see, it was quite obvious. And even those who were persecuting me knew, and I knew they knew.

MS. TIPPETT: Knew that you were doing the right thing?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, they knew I was doing the right thing.


MS. MAATHAI: But they didn’t want me to do it, because it was inconveniencing them. And I knew that, the fact that people have a right to clean drinking water. So anybody who is there polluting that water knows he is doing the wrong thing, knows he should not do it. Anybody who is interfering with the catchment areas where these levees come from, so that some levees start drying up, he knows he’s doing the wrong thing. And because he’s doing it to enrich himself, and he is enriching himself with resources that have been entrusted to him by the public and he knows the public don’t know, and if they know they are too afraid to challenge him. So me, when I challenge, he can afford to intimidate, he can afford to ridicule, because I’m alone, but I somehow I had that conviction that I’m right and he knows it.

MS. TIPPETT: Now, it sounds to me like you always assumed that there was a morality, a conscience somewhere, even inside the people who were — or an ability to see what you saw about what was right.

MS. MAATHAI: It was too obvious for people not to see.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah, but it would also have been possible for you to just write these people off, to fight them, to declare them evil. Do you know what I’m saying?

MS. MAATHAI: But I didn’t have the power to do anything to them. They had the power. That’s why they could arrest me, they could take me to jail, they could ridicule me publicly. They had the power. I didn’t have the power. I couldn’t do anything. So the only thing I had, the option I had was to work with these ordinary people and try to teach them. Initially, I didn’t do any teaching. But gradually, when I saw that people were being taken advantage of because they were ignorant, I started reading the Bible, you know, the book of Hosea …

MS. TIPPETT: Been reading the prophets?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, the prophet. I wanted to know, what did the prophets do when these things happened? And I read about the book of Hosea. Sometimes it’s fascinating to read about these old Bible stories and see — and sometimes the stories you read, they are almost replicated in the world we live in. So I read, for example, the book of Hosea quite often, and I think it is chapter 4, and it talks about this prophet who is sent to the people of Israel to tell them they will perish, because they are so ignorant.

And he said, you’re ignorant and even the priests are ignorant, and you are not listening to the instructions of the Lord, and so you will perish. So I saw literally that our people were perishing, because they were ignorant. They didn’t understand the linkages between the problems they were facing and the environmental degradation that was happening right there below their feet.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s an interesting model too, because it is — what the prophets were doing, what you were doing in a sense is railing against your own people for their sake.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah, telling them that, you know, open your eyes and see that what we are doing is very, very important. And don’t be intimidated; don’t be persuaded by these people who are in power, because whatever they are doing, they’re doing it against your good and the good of your children. So at least plant trees, for goodness sake. And by planting trees you are not harming anybody. You’re not harming them.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

MS. MAATHAI: But I knew that they didn’t like what I was doing.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s kind of an ecological form of civil disobedience, planting trees.

MS. MAATHAI: It was, in fact. It was, indeed. And, indeed, it became a symbol of our defiance every time. For example, we wanted to protect our forests that the people in power were privatizing. For example, I remember we had a big fight over a forest called Karura, which is close to the — it is actually within Nairobi, and it is actually essentially the land of Nairobi, the equivalent of Central Park in New York.


MS. MAATHAI: And they wanted to clear-cut this forest and put up residential houses. And I said, “Are you out of your mind? You need this forest.” And they said, “We don’t need the forest, we need houses.” Now, you tell me. So we would take trees and march with our seedlings towards the forest and say we are marching to go and plant trees. Now, ordinarily nobody should be bothered about a bunch of women trying to plant a tree, but because we are marching towards this forest, we were essentially saying, you’re not going to clear-cut this forest, you’re not going to put any residential houses in this forest, because this forest is needed by the city.

MS. TIPPETT: And did you win that battle?

MS. MAATHAI: After many years we won, which is great.


MS. MAATHAI: And that little forest is still there, thank God.

MS. TIPPETT: We started out talking about growing up, and within your culture trees were holy places or they created holy places, and you had a Catholic upbringing and then you read the Prophet Hosea when you were fighting some of your darkest battles. I want to ask you about your image of God. How do you think about — that’s a hard — I don’t usually ask people a direct question like that, but I’d be really curious about your response to it? What does your work with trees, I mean all the work you’ve done, the battles you’ve fought, and, you know, in your new awareness of the importance of democratic spaces, I mean, how does all of that flow into your understanding of these big religious questions?

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah. Well, when I was in a Catholic school in Nyeri, which is where I was doing my primary education, I was actually being taught by sisters of the Consulata Order, Order of the Consulata, who come from Milan, by the way, and their founder recently became beatified, by the way, so they’re on the right track. At that time, I must say that religion was extremely superficial in the way that God was presented to us, because God was presented to us in the way he appears in the Sistine Chapel, you know, by Michelangelo. So at that time it was, I would say, a very superficial presentation of God, almost like a human person. And with the mind of a young person, you almost felt like, yeah, God is somewhere in Rome or somewhere in the sky, in the clouds. And then, of course, you remember, my own background, and I was already removed from my own background, because my parents had already converted into Christianity.

MS. TIPPETT: From Kikuyu culture.

MS. MAATHAI: Yes. But there was always that influence of, for example, the fact that they believed that God lived on Mount Kenya, and they had a great reverence to Mount Kenya. And so in the course of my environmentalism, I have often visited those two concepts of the way my ancestors presented God to me and the missionaries presented God to me.

MS. TIPPETT: The Sistine Chapel or Mount Kenya.

MS. MAATHAI: Yeah. Now, where is God? And I tell myself, of course, now we are in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. You know, in many ways it’s a contradiction, because the church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now, if he is omnipresent, he is in Rome, but he can also be in Kenya at the same time, if he is omnipresent.

So I have had this transformation for me of who God is. I still believe strongly that there is that power. His shape, his size, his color, I have no idea. But you are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But I still — when I look on Mount Kenya, it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering. It is so important in sustaining life in my area that sometimes I say, yes, God is on this mountain.

MS. TIPPETT: Before I left Wangari Maathai, I asked her whether music is part of the Green Belt Movement. And she immediately offered to sing me a favorite chorus she often sings with others as they work and meet together.

MS. MAATHAI: It says there is no God like him. There is no love like his. There isn’t, there is no love like his. And there is no strength like his, no strength like his.

[Wangari Maathai Singing in Swahili]

MS. TIPPETT: Thank you so much, Wangari Maathai.

MS. MAATHAI: Most welcome.

Wangari Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Her books include Unbowed: A Memoir and Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World.

[Sound bite of music]

The day I spoke with Wangari Maathai, we trudged through eight inches of snow to interview her in a hotel room in Minneapolis. She was supposed to be attending a youth festival. And in that moment, at the end of our interview, as you just heard, she broke into song in Swahili. We’ve coupled her singing with images of Kenyan women as part of our SoundSeen series. View this audio slide show and share in the complete experience.

The best way to get free MP3s of this entire show, of course, and my unedited interview with Wangari Maathai is by subscribing to our e-mail newsletter and podcast. She discussed in much greater detail her unexpected career path and how she dealt with political corruption while she served for a time in a Kenyan administration. It’s all free and easy to download. Subscribe by clicking the “Updates” button on our home page or following our easy podcast instructions for iTunes. That’s all at OnBeing.org.

This program is produced by Chris Heagle, Nancy Rosenbaum, Shubha Bala, and Susan Leem. Anne Breckbill is our Web developer. Trent Gilliss is senior editor. Kate Moos is our executive producer. And I’m Krista Tippett.


Next time, we continue our Civil Conversations Project — with a magnificently wise civil rights elder. Vincent Harding describes how Martin Luther King’s vision might speak to our current domestic confusions and divisions. Also, what he’s learned in recent decades of how lessons of that time can be powerfully useful for the young of today. Please join us.


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