Considered Dangerous | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Considered Dangerous 

Wangari Maathai and 50,000 Kenyan women have made tree-planting a subversive activity.

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It took more than ten years, but planting trees has finally made Wangari Maathai a fugitive in her own country, Kenya. At the Jane Addams Conference at the Hilton and Towers on May 18, the founder of Kenya's Greenbelt Movement received two standing ovations as well as the Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award. But at home she hasn't slept two nights in the same place since February. Those who shelter her don't know where she's going next.

Dr. Maathai, whose PhD is in biology, isn't particularly afraid of being arrested. If she were, the international network of human-rights advocates, environmentalists, and feminists could probably bring enough pressure to preserve due process. But no amount of mail or publicity can protect against official vigilantism. Last year when Maathai joined a mothers' demonstration on behalf of political prisoners, police beat her unconscious. Now she's concerned that "deniable" agents of the Kenyan government would find it simpler to shoot her than to arrest her.

When she visited Pirie School on East 85th Street on May 17 she sounded anything but subversive. To the fifth- and sixth-graders she said: "You are now being molded. Give your teachers a chance to mold you, so that at my age you can stand before your community and say, 'I have given the best I had.' Things don't make you great--clothes, houses, cars. They are just things. It would be better if we live in mud huts and respect ourselves than if we drive Mercedes-Benzes and live like slaves."

When a precocious second-grader asked, "Was there slavery in Africa?" Maathai replied, "There are always people who want to force other people to work for them for nothing. Our job is to fight it--and for you that means work hard in school and get to college."

"Our teacher has been reading to us about you and your work," said one third-grader. "Are you very lucky to be alive?" "Yes," Maathai answered. For once her thousand-watt smile was not in evidence. "But I feel I must fight until people are free."

When Maathai visited Chicago in the fall of 1990 Mayor Daley proclaimed a day in her honor. She has been on MacNeil/Lehrer and Race to Save the Planet. Her idea--organize poor women, who do most of the farm work in Kenya, to plant trees and pay them for it--has also gotten her a chapter in the new book Eco-Heroes and a cameo in Vice President Gore's best-seller Earth in the Balance. The movement, Gore writes, "combines tree planting with an educational program for women about birth control. Most of the seven million trees planted by the women in Maathai's movement have survived because a planter receives the small compensation for each seedling planted only after it has been sufficiently nurtured and protected to have an excellent chance of surviving on its own."

Such publicity can easily brush over differences in culture and history, making it seem as if Maathai is a North American environmentalist with a quirky accent. (Gore describes the Greenbelt Movement in a way Maathai never does: he emphasizes birth control; she doesn't mention it, emphasizing instead that tree planting empowers women to make their own decisions in many aspects of their lives.) In the media melting pot everybody loves trees, Wangari Maathai loves trees, Mayor Daley loves trees. End of story. The real world isn't so simple.

Kenya exists because 19th-century British colonial administrators wanted to ensure control over Egypt and the Suez Canal. They built a railroad from the Indian Ocean to the headwaters of the Nile River in Uganda, and the land along that railroad corridor became Kenya. Maathai was born in 1940 (long before independence) in the countryside north of Nairobi, within sight of Mount Kenya. As a girl she hauled water, collected firewood, and helped cultivate fields. Sometimes her family didn't have enough food to go around. She remembers seeing a "miracle" when she entered school at age six: the teacher writing and erasing on the blackboard. To her, being able to erase what you had said was even more amazing than writing.

She vividly remembers the Catholic nuns who took charge of her education from the time she was 10 until she was 24. "They weren't just teaching. They were giving everything they had. Every time I looked at those nuns I thought, they came here from Italy to devote their whole life to others, because of something they believed in. They influenced me and made me look beyond myself." They also impressed on her the idea of bringing her knowledge back to her community. She attended Mount Saint Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, as an undergraduate, then got a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh. But her heart remained in Africa. "I never once felt that I could stay here. I didn't see any problems here."

Returning to independent Kenya in 1969, she automatically became part of the westernized elite. She obtained her PhD and began teaching at the University of Nairobi, and she married a rising young politician. (Two of their three children are now studying in the U.S.) But when she revisited her childhood home, something was obviously going wrong. "A spring I used to get water from had dried up. The land where we had grown food was planted in tea [for export as a cash crop]. And a huge fig tree that grew there had been cut down to make way for the tea.

"My mother had told me that you never collect firewood from a fig tree, but because she was a Christian she didn't explain to me why: the Kikuyu use it for their sacrifices. Fig trees were never cut; they would just fall on their own. I think they must have played a very important role in the water system--that's a link between spirituality and the environment." Since her childhood, tree cutting and cash cropping had left the ground bare, allowing rainwater to run off fast, which eroded the soil and eventually lowered the water table. "It was development with destruction."

At a university seminar in the early 70s she heard reports of rising malnutrition among Kenyans, even where cash crops had been planted. A firewood shortage turned out to be one reason. As trees were felled, women had only twigs to cook with and could not boil traditional nutritious foods like dried corn and beans. Another reason was the greater prestige--for those with the cash--of being able to buy white bread.

Maathai's husband ran for parliament in 1974. She took time off to help his campaign, but what she heard at the public rallies made her uncomfortable. "We promised the people jobs, but I knew there were none. I thought we were telling lies. I thought, well, if there are no jobs, perhaps we should create some."

In 1977 Maathai founded the Greenbelt Movement, believing that organizing poor women to plant trees and paying them for it (largely with development aid from UN agencies and Scandinavian countries) was perfect for a country with limited rainfall, limited farmland, and a burgeoning population of poor women.

In colonial days the British had dispossessed the natives and cleared forested land for farms. They planted some trees, but they were usually exotics, like pines, in commercial plantations managed by professional foresters. "These are very selfish trees," says Maathai. "They don't allow anything else to grow under them." But intercropping trees and food plants, she says, is a traditional native practice, one lately rediscovered by the professionals as "agroforestry."

More to the point, the British trees had "belonged" to the foresters. "Ordinary people came to feel disempowered, and few would replace these trees when they died. With the Greenbelt Movement we have reclaimed the ability to plant trees whether you can read and write or not."

Yet at first she did try having foresters teach the women how to plant trees. She laughs out loud at the memory. "The foresters told them that the sun had to be at a certain angle. These women cannot read and write--what do they know about angles? The foresters said that you should put a layer of stones at the bottom of the hole, then smaller stones, then sand. But in the central province of Kenya there are no stones!" That wouldn't matter to a government employee who could order a truckload of gravel. But for a woman whose entire cash income might be the small amount the Greenbelt Movement pays her if her trees live, buying gravel was out of the question. "When the foresters left I told the women to forget everything they had said. I said, 'Do it your way.' After all, these are women who know about planting and nursing little seedlings."

The program, which now involves 50,000 tree planters, proved so popular that in the middle 1980s the government, under President Daniel arap Moi, paid the Greenbelt Movement the ultimate compliment--imitation. "We were very lucky," says Maathai. "In the beginning they ignored us. By the time they discovered us we were like our trees--growing and very happy. There are communities today that provide their own firewood and have stopped the dust."

"If Jane Addams were alive today Wangari Maathai would be the first person she would invite to Hull-House," says Anne Markowitch, president of the Jane Addams Conference, which brought Maathai to Chicago. The ten-year-old conference operates out of a small Loop office, running a variety of programs that encourage women's leadership in international affairs.

Maathai, like Addams, is a reformer with more faith in grass-roots solutions than professional expertise. Both women started with activities that were unconventional but largely unassailable--Hull-House settlement work for Addams, tree planting for Maathai. But as time went on these projects led them both to take less popular positions. Addams was virtually ostracized for opposing U.S. participation in World War I. Maathai may pay a much higher price for advocating democracy, human rights, and tribal reconciliation in Kenya. "Something happens when you organize women like this," Maathai explains. "They find their way into other leadership positions. They ask why the government can't do this. They begin to compare.

"In 1989 we came to a crossroad. The government proposed to build a 60-story skyscraper--the tallest building in Africa, with a four-story statue of Moi in front--in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. I objected, in the name of the Greenbelt Movement, that this park belongs to the people and should not be taken over. We were told, the government is sponsoring this. And we replied, we are the government and lots of us prefer the park to having another white elephant built in Africa by a dictator." The public pressure eventually scared off the international financiers who would have backed the project.

"That was when people realized that this movement had other powers, the kind that President Moi and the politicians are afraid of. But it is difficult to criticize the movement as a movement--so he criticizes me as a person. He says I'm using the Greenbelt Movement as an antigovernment force."

To those safely out of Moi's reach that might sound more like a compliment than an indictment. But Moi, whose personal cult is reminiscent of Mao's, has little tolerance for dissent and has used parliament and the courts to put it down. According to Africa Watch, his government had "strong links" with Ceausescu's Romania, sending people to that slimiest of East European communist regimes for training (even though Kenya's pragmatic culture and market economy are more open to entrepreneurialism and individual initiative than most quasi-socialist African regimes).

"We have a dictator on whom democracy was imposed," explains Maathai. "He agreed to multiparty elections [under international pressure], but very reluctantly. He warned that Kenyans are not cohesive enough, and the tribes will fight each other." Moi won a December election against a splintered opposition with 30 percent of the vote. Now, Maathai says, he's surreptitiously promoting ethnic violence to fulfill his own prophecy.

"A man of peace would extend the hand of reconciliation to his defeated opponents. Instead he became vindictive. The major communities that rejected him [including Maathai's Kikuyu] are being punished. He encourages tribesmen in the police or the army to carry out attacks on them," driving members of the opposition from their farms in the fertile Rift Valley, smashing their retailing kiosks in urban Nairobi, and attacking the newspapers and magazines that have covered these events. "Then he says he has no idea of what is happening. I think he wants to provoke enough people to fight so that he can declare a state of emergency"--and run a de facto dictatorship once more.

If the Greenbelt Movement is antigovernment, Maathai seems to be saying it has little choice. "The environment cannot be adequately protected by a closed system of government," she told her audience at the Hilton on May 18. "The greatest danger to the environment is not a lack of awareness, but a lack of political will." No one has ever accused Maathai of lacking will.

"Many people cannot understand why I abandoned a promising career at the University of Nairobi. Many politicians are suspicious of me. They would not do that for peasants! As a woman, I was considered a bad example. I was doing things which should be left to men to do--which I would, if they were doing them!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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