Replenishing the Earth by Wangari Maathai

An impassioned call to heal the wounds of our planet and ourselves through the tenets of our spiritual traditions, from a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize

It is so easy, in our modern world, to feel disconnected from the physical earth. Despite dire warnings and escalating concern over the state of our planet, many people feel out of touch with the natural world. Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has spent decades working with the Green Belt Movement to help women in rural Kenya plant–and sustain–millions of trees.

With their hands in the dirt, these women often find themselves empowered and “at home” in a way they never did before. Maathai wants to impart that feeling to everyone, and believes that the key lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service. While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai draws inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate tikkun olam (“repair the world”) and renewing the Japanese term mottainai (“don’t waste”). Through rededication to these values, she believes, we might finally bring about healing for ourselves and the earth.

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was elected to Kenya’s parliament in 2002 and in 2003 was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. She is also the author of a memoir, Unbowed, and speaks to organizations around the world. She lives in Nairobi.

1. Why did you decide to write a memoir at this point in your life? Was it something you knew all along you would do at some point in your life?
Writing my memoirs was a response to the many questions I continue to be asked about sharing my life, work and experiences, especially after the prize. Although I had thought about writing it before, I kept postponing it. At first I worked on a book that focused on the work and experience of GBM entitled The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. Through the questions people asked me, I realized they were interested in knowing why and how I started the movement, what inspired me, what my background was and what sustained my interest. The Nobel Peace Prize allowed me to reflect even more on these questions.

2. What were some of the challenges in the writing process? It must not be an easy task to remember and retell (so clearly) all those events that took place in your life and your country’s history.
Time was the biggest challenge in the process. I worked on this project even as I continued all my other activities in addition to responding to the new interest in our work generated by the Nobel Peace Prize. A lot of travel was necessitated and all of a sudden my workload significantly increased. I however felt it was the right time to work on the project. It is not easy to forget events that shape your personality, psyche and values. These memories are constantly being tapped in the course of your life to define who we are. The writing process was also facilitated by the help I received help from many sources—family, friends, supporters—just as I have throughout my life.

3. This book is so much more than a story of your life, which memoirs usually are. In fact, it is through your story that we learn a great deal about your country and Africa in general. Therein, in my opinion, lies its strength. Was this your intention?
Not really. But it would have been difficult to convey the experiences of my life without unraveling the historical and political context within which my life was unfolding. These realities shaped and created who I became. I hope when people read my book they will identify their own experiences in my life’s journey and will be encouraged to embrace and make the best of theirs. I also hope it will help in their understanding of Africans experiences. Many Africans grew up in the colonial and post-colonial period and this book may help others understand how that experience shaped who we are today.

4. You devote a chapter to your experience living and studying in the United States in the late 1960s and explain how it transformed you as a person. What were some of the things about America and its people that inspired you to care about the world as much as you do? Also, do you feel any different today in light of America’s often-criticized foreign policy?
America represents many things to different people. For me, its diversity, economic influence, expansiveness, beauty, endurance and its ability to nurture and neglect at the same time are some of the characteristics of the United States that made a permanent impact on my mind. So were events such as the civil rights movement, the Kennedy presidency and the American college experience.

I remember my time in America and the people I met with great affection. I feel I carried its energy and confidence back with me to Kenya, and that helped me in my efforts to make changes in my own country. America still has that energy and drive, and has the capacity, especially because of the commitment of its people, to promote greater peace and harmony in the world.

5. You say at one point that poverty in Africa and other parts of the world is not only the result of bad governance but also an outcome of the global economic system. What more can be done to correct this, and not only by those with power and influence but also by the average person who simply wants to make a difference? As you say, “it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them.”

The leadership in Africa can do a lot and indeed there has been some progress. Globally, politics notwithstanding, Africa can do with more genuine friends both at the bilateral level and within global institutions such as WTO and Bretton Woods Institutions among others. With greater understanding, individual citizens can do a lot to push their governments to be more responsible and accountable beyond their borders. Those of us with influence (for example, academic, political, celebrities, etc.) can do a lot to influence policy both locally at the global level.

6. The Green Belt Movement, which you founded in 1977, is going strong after so many years. Can you briefly discuss its mission and future goals?
The mission of The Green Belt Movement is to create a value-driven society of people who consciously work for continued improvement of their livelihoods and a greener, cleaner Kenya. Looking forward, the GBM is working to facilitate the sharing of the GBM experience with the rest of the world.

As an African grass roots organization that has demonstrated the success of its holistic approach to the interrelated problems of environmental degradation, poverty and women’s rights, and governance, we have established Green Belt Movement International to ensure that the work of the GBM in Kenya expands and is sustained, facilitate the sharing of the work with other parts of Africa and beyond, to institutionalize the work and experiences of GBM so future generations can continue to learn and be empowered by this example and to continue to support important global campaigns and struggles that represent the linkage between the environment, democracy and peace, such as the Congo Forest Basin Ecosystem and the African Union’s ECOSOCC.

7. You spend a great deal of time in your book discussing the importance of education, which is a “ticket out” of poverty in many parts of the world. But you also say that education, “if it means anything, should not take people away from the land.” Is this still happening? Aren’t educated people much more environmentally aware today than in the not-so-distant past, or is there still much more to be done. What are your thoughts on this?

At least in Africa where people’s livelihoods were dependent on primary natural resources like (land, soil, water, forests) and where, due to lack of advanced technology, labor was intensive, education was perceived to be a gateway to light work which led to a better quality of life. Running away from the rural landscapes became a goal for the educated and the governing elite. That is what I mean by saying education should not alienate us from the primary natural resources. When we do get alienated, not only do we destroy those resources and thereby undermine our quality of life, but we also become insensitive to their destruction. Therefore, education is important but it must be an education that ensures we are not alienated from the resources upon which our survival depends.

8. What achievement are you most proud of and why?

Winning Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 is probably at the top of that list. Congratulations on that.
My most important achievement is having been fortunate enough not to have lost my focus despite the many distractions along the way. I also most proud of my three children and the extended family, which never failed to encourage me.

9. What’s next in store for you?
Being a Peace Laureate means that I am now a permanent ambassador for peace wherever I go. It’s a wonderful responsibility. It entails sharing my work, inspiration, my thoughts on peace, democracy and sustainable management of resources. I have already been requested by several African Heads of States to serve as goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.

The African Union has also asked me to assist in mobilizing civil society in Africa towards the formation of a common forum to promote unity and better management of African affairs. In Kenya, I enjoy representing grassroots people in parliament. It helps me not to lose sight of the real issues that affect a majority of the African people and indeed much of the developing world. It would be otherwise easier to escape into an ivory tower. So, I have a lot to do! in addition to serving my country these new responsibilities will keep me busy for many years to come.

One on One – Wangari Maathai – 19 Jan 2008 – Part 1

As the Green Belt Movement in Africa grew, she became known as the Tree Mother.

One on One – Wangari Maathai – 19 Jan 2008 – Part 2

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