frost over the world
From: Frost Over the World

Wangari Maathai

The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize talks about her work.

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to
win the Nobel Peace Prize

Sir David Frost: From President Clinton and Kofi Annan to Mikhail Gorbachev and Opera Winfrey, everyone is lining up to sing Wangari Maathai’s praises. In 2004 she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental and political activism.

It all started back in 1977 when Wangari encouraged Kenyan women to start planting trees, with a few political run-ins along the way. Now 30 years on and 31 million trees later, I am joined by Wangari, the founder of the Green Belt movement.

Did you know when you were very young that one day your future was going to be as an activist? When did this vision happen to you?

Wangari Maathai: I guess for things like this you start from childhood but you don’t realise this is happening to you. But definitely the experiences you go through as a child, as a young adult all go toward making what you eventually become. So I am quite sure that growing up in the countryside, in green fertile countryside with the forests before my eyes shaped my thinking of what the countryside should look like.

DF: And then you realised that it was getting worse your first move was the green belt movement?

WM: I first went to America and spent some five and a half years. By the time I came back to Kenya it had become independent. It had introduced cash crops which I didn’t know about when I was growing up. We were clearing a lot of trees, especially in the forests and these were some of the images that made me look back and remember what I had seen as a child.

DF: The starting point was getting people to plant trees. That was a sort of constructive thing that you thought you could get going.

Wangari encourages Kenyan
women to plant trees

WM: It was partly inspired by the fact that around 1975 women were having their first meeting in Mexico and the women in Kenya were complaining about some very basic needs that were missing in their lives because they had an environment that was degrading. So I combined my observations and what the women were complaining about and I thought we need to do something about the environment and planting trees looked like the ‘doable’ even for peasant farmers.

It is because the tree is such a wonderful friend of man. But because there are so many trees we had taken them for granted. But planting a tree, especially in the rural areas of Africa, you hold the soils together, you get fire wood, if you plant fruit trees you get food, you provide yourself with fresh air, you get water from these trees. I haven’t found anything so wonderful as a tree.

DF: And then you got into human rights and women’s rights as well.

WM: When I started planting trees I wasn’t thinking of human rights or democracy. But very quickly I learnt that because we were living in a very dictatorial government it became very difficult for us to share information, to meet, to move because these freedoms had been curtailed. And that is when I started seeing how linked the protection of the environment and governance are because I started seeing that you need a very democratic system of government where you can hold your leaders accountable, where you can disseminate information, where you can talk about the dangers to the environment without being accused of being anti-government.

DF: How many times have you been arrested and put in prison?

WM: Well several times but I must say I always wanted to not break the law. So quite often I was picked and when I was taken to court the judges didn’t have anything against me.

DF: Now you have gone on to become an MP – do you rule out one day perhaps being a future president of Kenya?

WM: Many people ask me that question but the truth of the matter is that we have a lot of presidential candidates all lined up and ready to go. Whereas for me there are other issues that are much more important, such as the issues of environment, issues of climate change and the fact that Africa is so threatened by climate change. We need a lot of mobilisation of African people and that is where I would like to put my energy.