Interview with Wangari Maathai

IT'S a bright morning in Nairobi, and Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), long-time campaigner for the environment, civil and women's rights and newly minted government minister, is annoyed. Her mobile phone, work papers and handbag are locked in a cabinet in parliament – unavailable after an evening session. Kenya's 18 women parliamentarians (of 222) are not allowed to take handbags into the chamber. Maathai wants changes in the rules, and will lend her voice to efforts to get them.

After years of harassment, beatings and jailing by the Government of Daniel arap Moi, Maathai was elected to Parliament in 2002 in Kenya's first fair vote in decades. In January 2003, she was named Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. Her transition from campaigner to legislator has been remarkable: on inauguration day, she realized that her guards had once been her jailers. ‘I sit there in Parliament sometimes and remind myself, “You're really making laws here.” If you can help make laws that will make things better tomorrow, then that's much, much better than what you could have done outside.'

Maathai has been speaking out for social justice since founding GBM in 1977. Since then, GBM has helped rural women plant nearly 30 million trees across Kenya to slow desertification and provide fruit, fuel and shade, becoming ‘foresters without diplomas'. In many cases the trees were the first hint of autonomy in the women's lives. GBM tied tree-planting work to civic education, sowing seeds of larger transformation through training on ecology and rights – rights to a clean and healthy environment, good governance and personal freedoms, all deeply compromised during Moi's autocratic regime.

‘We created a movement that was not only taking action to save the environment, but also educating itself about the responsibility we have as citizens to change the Government and demand better governance.'

As a minister, Maathai has had to adapt to a different pace and the outsized expectations of a public used to hearing her speak out or organize a protest to protect a forest or city park. The former University of Nairobi professor and first woman in East Africa to earn a PhD gives herself a middling grade. ‘I think I was performing better after we built the Green Belt Movement. I was able to move things. [Here] it's a very slow process. [People] want to see action. They don't want to hear that I'm sitting there when the forests are disappearing. They want to turn things over so they expect me to turn things over.'

Yet Maathai isn't nostalgic. ‘This for me is... a very important step. I'm learning. Many of the environmentalists with whom we started in the 1960s and early 1970s did end up in government, and a good number became ministers. [But] because many of us are driven by idealism, rather than politics, we have to train ourselves to be patient and realize that governments are not run by idealists.'

GBM's work continues and Maathai is using its methods, lessons and sometimes its seedlings. She still does tree planting with GBM groups. Maathai is also part of ministry efforts to clean up Kenya's notoriously corrupt forestry sector and encourage shifts from soft to hard (recyclable) plastic production.

She's also seeking to engage Kenyans in managing natural resources, and reforesting the country, as a matter of policy. ‘If we did it, it would be the first time the Government is working directly with communities to rehabilitate the environment. In the past the Government was operating completely separate from the civil society and communities.... The only way you can really increase forest cover is by involving the people.'

Women of her generation (she's 64) didn't have it easy, and divorced women (which she is) even less so. Yet her gender has been a strong part of her appeal and perhaps her success. Over the years, Maathai's courage made her a national hero. If young Kenyan girls are strong and outspoken, their families often exclaim, admiringly and with some trepidation, ‘You're like Wangari'.

If young Kenyan girls are strong and outspoken their families often exclaim, ‘You're like Wangari’

‘I have gone through many stages in my life. Many women, especially in this country, relate to my story, because they can read something in it that reminds them of their story. A lot of women get encouraged by a vision and aspiration, that you're not putting a limit to yourself. To be elected was very important to many women, [to see] that it's possible.'

Long years in the trenches of civil society, and now as an assistant minister, haven't drained Maathai's energy. ‘ I'm always hopeful,' she says, a smile breaking over her extraordinarily unlined face. ‘We have opportunities to make change happen, to take a different direction. I'm very excited, actually.' About Moi and the male flunkies who hurled insults at her for years (irrational, too talkative for a woman) – Maathai says, laughing, ‘I marvel at the fact that they are not in government and we are now inside. I'm sure they wonder what the hell happened!'

That afternoon, Maathai and other women parliamentarians demanded action on a host of gender inequalities in Parliament, handbag restrictions included. A new Kenya, indeed.

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Wangari Maathai talked with Mia MacDonald