The Takeaway

Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai’s Life as an Activist

In the mid-1970s, as she set out to launch the Green Belt Movement – developing communities by planting trees – Wangari Maathai faced an environmentally strained land, an impoverished population and a government plagued with lack of resources, inexperience, and corruption. But the Nobel Peace Prize laureate and author of The Challenge for Africa pointed out a more basic obstacle.

“Traditionally we did not plant trees. God did,” she joked with the packed audience at the UCLA Fowler Museum.

Maathai joined Kal Raustiala, director of the UCLA Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations, a co-sponsor of the event, to discuss her activism and her take on colonialism, debt forgiveness, and the future of Africa.

If you can beat ’em, join ’em

Maathai began her career as an environmentalist – after studying biology, pursuing her education in Kansas, and Wangari Maathai guestsbecoming a lecturer at the University of Nairobi – when she saw what a lack of resources could do to communities. Speaking to rural women as part of her work with the National Council of Women of Kenya, she found that contrary to her resource-rich childhood, many families had few sources of income, little clean drinking water, inadequate food, and faced a dwindling firewood supply. Maathai’s solution was to plant trees. Much of the loss of resources, she found, were symptoms of environmental degradation. When she tried to determine and redress the causes of that degradation, however, her work came under government scrutiny.

“Nobody would have been bothered by a bunch of women planting trees,” Maathai said. But she began to question how the Kenyan government managed its resources, and, she said, “very soon, the government began to see us as an anti-government movement. We were harassed and arrested and treated like we were enemies of the government.”

Maathai and her fellow activists became, in her words, a pro-democracy movement. And after nearly three decades of work toward transforming the environment and government, Maathai won election into Kenya’s parliament.

Micronations, big bottlenecks

Kenya’s problems run deeper than its current government, as Maathai explained. When the British handed power to Kenyans, they lacked the legal and administrative knowledge required to run a state, she said. But they also “had not even known the concept of a nation, except the concept of their tribe,” she said, referring to tribes as micronations. “Look at a country like France, which is generally very united and very proud of itself,” she said to a laugh from the crowd. “You’ll find that [micronations] have the same parameters that make them proud…a sense of belonging and a sense of history, a sense of the past, a sense of heritage.”

Wangari Maathai guestsWithout a concerted effort to unite those micronations, Maathai said, Kenya has been left to the whims of the select few to whom the British handed off power. The United Nations and the U.S. were encouraging decolonization – though, as Maathai said to a laugh, “whatever the U.S. had in mind, I do not know” – and the British pursuing it without making sure the colonized countries were ready for independence. The elites who took power, Maathai explained, marginalized those who fought for independence, pursued extravagant lifestyles, and were little more than “stooges of the colonial administration.” It was bound to happen given that the departing power trained the new power, unlike, say, the transfer of Hong Kong.

“They created laws and regulations,” Maathai said, “that made sure that the mother country continued to have a great influence in the management of states and in the management and exploitation of resources.”

An African bailout?

Maathai did not shy from placing blame on the Kenyans who have run the country since independence. At a United Nations conference in 1995, the government attempted to ban Maathai from presenting a paper discussion corruption, governance, human rights, and other “bottlenecks” for Africa. Maathai managed to present it nonetheless – pasting a UN logo on her work so that “nobody dared confiscate my paper,” she said to a laugh. “I really felt, why can’t we talk about issues that we see every day, that we know are affecting the lives of people?”

Maathai discussed at length one such issue – debt forgiveness. Noting that African countries have paid back the principal of their international bank loans and are now paying interest, she asked, “If you lend me $10 and I pay you back $50, how much more do you want from me before you can feel that I have paid your $10 back?”

To a roar from the crowd, Maathai said that Americans are much more understanding of the debt issue “because you have seen what banks will do if they are not regulated.”

Wangari Maathai guests“In this country, the bank will give you money. And if you can’t pay it back they give you a card. And if you take too much they give you another card,” she said, “until you live hand-to-mouth.”

Extending the metaphor, she noted that African hospitals and schools are in collapse, while income is scarce and working conditions poor. Resource woes are the cause of conflicts around the continent, though those conflicts are often said to be caused by ethnic or religious tension, she argued.

“We borrow and we restructure and whatever we do, we have to pay back…we use aid to pay the debt,” Maathai said, estimating that some countries pay back four dollars of debt for every one dollar of aid they receive. She added, “[Africans] are indebted for life. They are literally slaves.”

Banks demand payments, and the developed world offers no bailout, despite the suffering of African people. The American bailout saved Americans from further pain, Maathai said, though they had stopped paying back their loans.

“We are telling our government,” Maathai said to applause, “if you can’t pay, just tell them you can’t pay. Finished. You have already paid…your people are dying.”

No Idi Amin, and no Santa Clause either

Wangari Maathai guestsDespite the problems mentioned above, Maathai noted. “We have come a long way from the times of Idi Amin.” There has long been an international consensus that leaders cannot hide human rights violations behind claims of sovereignty, and that states are obligated to protect their citizens. Aid organizations are picking up best practices from each other. The African Union, though still not strong enough, is gaining more currency and experience. Africans are excited too, Maathai said in response to an audience question, about the Obama presidency even as they realize “he is not going to be Santa Clause to Africa.” And the Kenyan diaspora provides much income for the country although, Maathai said wryly during Q&A, “If [the government] would not waste it or steal it, it would be a great contribution.” Its members, Maathai said, should not feel guilty about leaving the country because the Kenyan government has not created a “conducive environment” for their flourishing.

Difficult work remains. “Africa is rich but she continues to be exploited,” Maathai said, lacking the skills and technology to add value to resources, and spending too much money on wars, “investing in guns which we don’t make but we buy from people who are very happy to sell.”

And the continent is still dependent on the rest of the world, particularly for trade. “As you know in Kenya, we don’t drink coffee, but we produce the best coffee in the world,” she said to cheers. “We need the market. We need to sell.”

Watch the video here.
See more photos here.

*Photos by Aaron Salcido.