Per Ludrig Magnus, the Norwegian Ambassador to Kenya, signs a condolence book for Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai in Nairobi. (photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)
I am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour of “Planting the Future.” I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that “the earth was naked,” and continued, “For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green.”
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi’s fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country’s parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya’s central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family’s ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa’s second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya’s rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that “when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint.” In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. “Now where is God?,” Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here’s how she answered her own question:
“I tell myself that of course now we’re in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it’s a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He’s in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain.”