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Wangari Maathai, the heart of Africa

2004, for the first time in history, an African woman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe a surprising decision at first, but the environmentalist developed more things than 25 million trees. An interview with the astonishing woman from Kenya.

Winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace and environmentalist from Kenya, Dr. Wangari Maathai
Picture by Maathai

In her home country Kenya, the 64-year-old lady is called "Mama Miti – Mother of the Trees". When she received the news about being honoured by the Nobel Committee in Oslo the coming Friday, she burst into tears. But afterwards she posed for the photographers with a big smile on her face suiting the queen of the forest.

"Where this zest for life comes from? No, I don't always smile that bright." says Wangari Maathai in our interview. And she laughs: "At the moment the famous picture was taken that went around the world it was easy. I had just received the good news. But usually I get my energy from a voice inside me, that always tells me I have to do something. It is a voice that surely talks to all of us and that we only have to listen to if we really want to change the world."

For hundreds of thousands of women, mostly impecunious, untrained and repressed by the traditional system, she is the Heart of Africa, bringing living hope: A strong woman, not only personified zest of life and powerful like no other, she always was a fighter and an idol as well. A strong-minded woman not afraid to talk, who has been left by her husband with three children, because she was "too educated, to heady, to successful and to hard to control". And she is a woman who still takes care of every problem by herself. This is also confirmed by her colleagues at the "Green Belt Movement" in Kenya's capital Nairobi.

Prof. Wangari Maathai studied in the United States and Germany, led the Institute of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi and was elected Assistant Minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife last year. This after being arrested 1991 for her activities and after shocking the Kenyan men 1997, when she ran for the presidents office.

Almost 30 years before everything started with planting trees. According to a UN report in those years in Kenya not even nine trees were planted for 100 trees chopped down. More and more animals starved, the pollution of water and the aggradation of soil quickly increased and the poor local population suffered from a lack of timber and firewood. Whole forests were chopped down to gain profitable building land.

Wangari Maathai founded the "Green Belt Movement", whose aim was returning the land to a green belt. It was an endless political fight against Kenya's regime at that time, which also served a moving example beyond Kenyas borders. Thousands, mainly women, found paid employment, because of the donations. They received money for education and learned how to cultivate crops effectively. Now, after three decades and more than 25 million planted trees in 13 countries, Wangari Maathais efforts turn out to be much more than a succeeding environmental campaign – but still this is not enough for her. Nowadays Green Belt is also a movement against hunger and corruption, a movement for spreading education, for human rights. All this growing from the roots of those first trees.

Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the movement which started with the simple act of planting trees, and also for gaining recognition in Kenya's still difficult politics. The laureate in the interview: "Please send my sincere greetings to Austria. About ten years ago we got very much support from their government, especially from the "Care" organisation in Vienna.

The topic Austria raises a knowing smile on Wangari Maathai's face: "I had the pleasure to be guest in your country two times. The first time was in Salzburg, St. Virgil, and the second time in beautiful St. Johann. But this year Austria has its own Nobel Prize Winner, hasen't it?. I have read about Elfriede Jelinek. I wanted to congratulate her for a long time, but until now I just didn't find the time. How unfortunate that she can't be at the ceremony in Stockholm personally."

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© A report by Tobias Micke (05-12-04) – Contact