Wangari Maathai — Planting the Future
September 29, 2011

A remarkable Kenyan woman and environmentalist speaks from experience about the links between ecology, human flourishing, war and peace, and democracy. And she shares her thoughts on where God resides.


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Custodians of Nature's Coded Wisdom

Listen and view an audio gallery features images of Kenyan women striving for a more verdant future. Photos are accompanied by Wangari Maathai singing a native tune in Kiswahili that's often sung while planting trees.

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About the Image

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai during her visit to an environmental project in Cape Town, South Africa in 2005.
(photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images)

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I was already a huge fan of Wangari Maathai -but after your coverage I am just beside myself in awe and much so that I sent about 800 of my martial arts teacher friends this message:
I'll say this only once --and then I'll repeat it 1000 times:

The people who will make you a real MASTER, who will fill your school with students, who will teach you the ART of the martial way, ...yes, the very people who are at the top of the food chain in martial arts education....


They are human beings of the most extraordinary kind --of the kind that transcend style, system, country of origin, political party, rank, gender, marketing "system", brand name, and religion...

Meet someone...that if you would pay attention, would teach you more about martial arts mastery than any other human being on the planet.

Meet Wangari Maathai.

So, Speaking of Faith, thank you for educating, informing, and inspiring.

I helped me see a connection between social justice and environment.

It makes me wonder what people who works for big greedy corporations tell their children about what they do, do they know what they are doing to the environment and our world. It makes me question the morality of the little money I have left in bonds, am I part of the solution or the problem?

Francisco Enriquez.

God is truly Omni-present. Ms. Wangari Maathai is a manifestation of God’s presence even in Kenya.
Many things struck me while listening to this interview but one that really stands out is how so much seems to depend on what appears to be a perfectly natural and sensible question “What is in it for me?” It therefore seems to make sense to devise solutions to issues like environmental protection that always give us something in return and of course we prefer that payback be immediate rather than later. Why pursue alternative renewable energy sources when gas is cheaper? Everything must make financial sense as if our financial savings from destroying the environment is going to matter if the air is polluted or we run out of water.

I believe that for people to want something back is in our nature but the good news is we can be taught to be selfless, to serve and give without expecting immediate benefits. People like Ms. Wangari and many others make sacrifices that bring great benefits to the world. Ms. Wangari notes the effect of catholic nuns, the civil rights movement in the 60s on her own life - we “are a product of the society you belong to”. This shows how interconnected we all are and how no good act is inconsequential or insignificant. Another thing that Ms. Wangari said that is a source of hope is that we all have a level of consciousness and morality – a little voice that reminds us of what is right. Though we should never leave it to those who destroy the environment to change and do the right thing when they are ready, we know there is always hope if only we can get them to listen to the little voice within them.

Wangari Maathai is a very astonishing woman, who has lived both a long and full life. She has seen the world, sought knowledge, and come back to her homeland to make a diference in the plight of women and the ecosystem. For her amazing efforts she won a noble peace prize. What is surprising to see is her environmental consciousness and belief in a sort of eco-balance that humans have the great potential to disrupt in their greed.

It is interesting to see how her religious faith and upbringing has had a dramatic impact on the path her life has taken. She says in her own words during the interview that see believes she would have been a different person without the presence of the Catholic missionaries and foremost nuns in her youth. Whatching these women give their life in service half way accross the world along with see the global fight for justice during the Civil Rights era enabled her to actualize and see worthiness in being concerned with your neighbor.

Still another highly important religious element for Wangari was the "pagan" roots of her tribe, whose spritual rituals they associated with certain fig trees gave them significant prominence in her mind. It is hard to imagine that without her mother telling her as a young girl that these are the trees we don't touch that Wangari would later see the central thread that connected the socio-ecological problems of day with a root cause. So as she said, with development they often get caught up in the changes and novelty of industrialization and don't realize with the advance of progress their is often vital and relevant things being lost in the process.

Missionaries and colonization has stripped the Wangari's people of their inherent stewardship of the land and environmental, in attempt to transform a seemingly backward people to civilization they disregarded the knowledge and insights they already had to offer. It is sad to see that in the introduction of a new religion and culture, their also had to be a customary suppression of the old culture and religion as inferior. But Wangari's ability to withstand aspects of the new world and the old world of her ancestors benefited her much more greatly than total submergion into western civilization and values. She was ultimately able to not only help herself by holding onto her roots but start an entire green revolution.

As a very small child growing up in Bloomington, Indiana, my most favorite thing to do was to spend time nestled among the flora and fauna of Bradford Woods...and various woodscapes near the married-student housing where my parents attended Indiana University. Just as Ms. Maathai, I too believe that trees are holy places--as a child, I believed that they actually spoke amongst themselves and sometimes whispered to me. Swaying in the wind, the trees were neighborhoods and communities in the sky.

It broke my heart to learn that the fig trees were destroyed as a way to turn the African tribes people toward Christianity...and the subsequent erosion problems. Everything on this planet exists for a reason, whether it's clear to us or not.

I've just added Mt. Kenya to my list of places to visit before I die. If the Kekuyu believe that God lives on Mt. Kenya...then so do I! I'm so glad I tuned into SOF and Krista Sunday morning.

I like the Kenyan Nobel Prize-winner's custodial interpretation of the creation account in Genesis. Being in charge of the environment, humanity may derive benefit from it if human policy preserves rather than destroys it. But if exploitation destroys the environment, there'll be nothing left for others to enjoy. Clear-cutting the land only inflates the bank accounts of a few exploiters, and we've seen in the recent economic crisis how rapidly money can disappear. For the existence of it too is a matter of faith as I learned while studying economics.

Grant Garber
Akron, OH

North Florida is one of my favorite places for trees. There are ancient Bald Cypress on the Suwannee, Santa Fe and Ichetuknee Rivers. I'm enriched by their presence and wonder what stories they could tell if they could speak. The kayak in the picture is 12 feet long. The Cypress tree pictured is older than my grandparents, maybe even my great grandparents. I'd love to know how many Spaniards passed this tree. Maybe even Ponce de Leon as he searched for the "Fountain of Youth" on the Ichetuknee River.

Planting Trees for the Future was a discussion with Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai. She was most recognized for founding the green belt movement in Africa, which was an organization designed to empower African women be planting trees. Maathai has great respect for nature, and believes it’s very important to find a balance between human and natural resources. She also has the privilege of being the first women in her country to earn a PhD.

One quote Maathai made that I found especially interesting was when she said; “If you want to do something for the environment, you have to see what’s disconnected”. This statement made me think about how things are here in America because one of the things that disconnects the American society is accountability. Of course, everyone talks about “going green”, but as Americans we are still very wasteful. And when you consider our population in proportion to the rest of the world, we use more natural resources than any other country.

As far as the religious implications are concerned, Maathai talked about how Christian theology has ignored the environment, and even interpreted stories from the bible in a destructive way. I would have to agree with that because I can’t recall any references to the environment within the bible. It mostly refers to other people, and never gives the proper respect to other forms of life in nature. Embracing nature was how Wangari Maathai helped empower the people in her country. When the government wanted to cut down trees to make room for residential housing Maathai would lead marches to plant trees. This action stood for a symbol of defiance against the people in power, whereas the government probably seen it more as a form of civil disobedience. Still, there’s no better way to stand up to your government and help the environment at the same time.

I listened to this story and was renewed in my own personal desire to do what I can to take care of the earth in my own corner of the world. Up to now, this has been through recycling at home, encouraging my grandson to recognize and recycle, and doing some of it in my classroom. The stirrings I have to do more through expanding recycling at the high school where I work and seeing it as a longterm vision vs. a one-semester, or one-year project were "stirred to flame" if you will. I see the value and importance of teaching this as a value, of loving our world, vs. an activity, a one-time action. Everytime we recycle, we pick up a piece of trash, we express an act of love to God, a co-sharing of the care of His creative and divine work. I also think that when we begin to see our earth, our everyday environment as sacred, we will begin to see the people around us, the marginalized and unvalued, the immigrant, the unborn, people with disabilities, women, as sacred. My Catholic faith was inspired by her take on the readings of the prophet Isaiah, her insight about the need to teach people or they would perish, how people know they are doing wrong when they use resources for their gain for self-wealth. I liked your comment about planting a tree being an action of ecological civil disobedience.

I usually awake to the alarm at 6 am with your Sunday program. I enjoy starting my Sunday by lying in bed, hearing the conversations, reflecting upon them, on God on God's day. Thank you.

I can't wait to share this story with my Earth Forum Meeting today 2/20 in Howard County Columbia, MD.

Wangari Maathai is without question one of the most inspirational people of our time. She was the first woman in East Africa to earn a PhD. I am proud to say that she also received a Masters degree from my own alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. In the 1970s, 80's and 90's the supreme courage Wangari demonstrated through years of vilification and harassment by the Moi government is nothing short of amazing. She lead the fight against construction of a huge skyscraper in Uhuru Park, one of the few green spaces left in Nairobi. Later she would lead the fight against the grabbing of Karura Forest. Needless to say it was a proud day for Kenyans (and those of us who love that country) when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Dr. Maathai served as a member of Parliament and an Assistant Minister for Environment in the first Kibaki administration. Unfortunately her humanitarian and environmental influence on Kenya's civil society has never really impacted the Kenyan political establishment. If it had then perhaps the debacle that followed the rigged 2007 Presidential election might have been avoided. If only the likes of Wangari Maathai could have led the country! Mungu Abariki Mama Mti na watu wote wa Kenya!

Wangari Maathai is without question one of the most inspirational people of our time. She was the first woman in East Africa to earn a PhD. I am proud to say that she also received a Masters degree from my own alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh. In the 1970s, 80's and 90's the supreme courage Wangari demonstrated through years of vilification and harassment by the Moi government is nothing short of amazing. She lead the fight against construction of a huge skyscraper in Uhuru Park, one of the few green spaces left in Nairobi. Later she would lead the fight against the grabbing of Karura Forest. Needless to say it was a proud day for Kenyans (and those of us who love that country) when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Dr. Maathai served as a member of Parliament and an Assistant Minister for Environment in the first Kibaki administration. Unfortunately her humanitarian and environmental influence on Kenya's civil society has never really impacted the Kenyan political establishment. If it had then perhaps the debacle that followed the rigged 2007 Presidential election might have been avoided. If only the likes of Wangari Maathai could have led the country! Mungu Abariki Mama Mti na watu wote wa Kenya!

I recently listened to the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathi, from Kenya, interviewed on American Public Media by Krista Tippett. Maathi spoke warmly and engagingly about her life in Kenya, her investment in biology and ecology, of spirit, women’s work, her evolving sense of who and where god is, and her experiences with the planting of trees as both a gesture of activism and as a practical effort to improve the basic quality of women’s lives.

Maathi shared her deep sense of closeness to the land and to the strong embeddedness and ingrainedness of the Kikuyu teaching and traditions of her childhood, which seem to live on inside her now and to have informed her life view through all of the transformations she has experienced, personally, professionally, intellectually, spiritually, and culturally. She still references “the mountain”—Mount Kenya—with a certain air of reverence and notes the great significance that "spirit structure" continues to hold in her life.

Similarly, through the transformations in my own life, however small or however much less impressive or less impactful than Maathi, I can relate strongly to that sense of finding spirit, of discovering the “other” or a "god-ness" or “goddess-ness,” perhaps a goodness in the natural world and the earth around me. I always have in one way or another.

In the time since I’ve come to live in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains, backed up against the gentle rib of Chestnut Knob that leads up to Brittain Mountain splitting the skyline behind and above me--I find that I am more aware (or have returned more deeply and solidly to an old awareness) of the passing moments of the seasons—of the years and days and minutes of my life and the sweet (sometimes bittersweet) expending of these moments on this small patch of earth on which I find my home.

Each morning, I wake and scan the visible mountains that ring this valley basin. In particular, I directly face the minor prominence of Vance Knob as I walk southeast from my front door with three dogs and, often, my camera in tow. Vance Knob is a small foothill of the eastern Blue Ridge escarpment, leading to Ray Knob behind it and on through the historic communities of Maney and Ballard Branch and Ox Creek, past Rattlesnake Lodge to the Blue Ridge Parkway at the top, spreading east past Snowball Gap, Little Snowball Mountain, on to Craggy Pinnacle and beyond, just 25 miles or so, to Mt. Mitchell—the highest point in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River.

Everyday, I visually comb these slopes and search the sky, watching for the slightest hint of an approaching sunrise or sunset, the moon in all her varied adornment, constellations galore, and the unexpected and transient jewels of cloud formations that gather and disburse with equal speed—it is as if I have become a bit of a “forty-niner“ panning for astral gold.

In my lifetime, I have been one of those Aquarians who feels they have an innate sense of connection to the sea and the tides—to their ebb and flow. I used to believe that I was only closest to spirit, to the deepest level of compassion, and to the most inspired mix of humanity and divinity when I was next to water--especially next to the ocean. From my first introduction to Catalina Island as a small child of five or six, followed by an almost 20-year absence from the ocean, and then a return to the sea when I lived along the mid-Atlantic coast for 13 years, I have loved the waves and surf, the sun and clouds (and storms, even) moving across the character of the water—a slippery, sometimes dark, and often transparent body of rolling liquid mass that takes on a life of its own as it surges and swells and recedes along the edges of our continents.

When I moved to the southern Appalachians almost a decade ago, I carried the sensate memories of the waves and water with me to the mountains. In the intervening years, I have learned to see the undulating ridges of the Pisgahs and the Blue Ridges, the Blacks, the Seven Sisters, the Craggies, the Great Smokies, the Cherokees, and the Nantahalas as waves of a different ocean, renewed evidence to me of spirit and maybe god-ness or goddess-ness in this world. Just as the oceans represent a sort of “milk and honey” of the spirit, flowing and feeding and replenishing the earth—these mountains are, to me, the inland "oceans" of the gods—enriching those of us who live along them and flourish in their beautiful, organic, and life-sustaining spirit.

Quote by Maathi:

"...where is God? And I tell myself, of course, now we are 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…So I have had this transformation for me of who God is. I still believe strongly that there is that power…But I still — when I look on 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."

~Wangari Maathi
2004 Nobel Peace Price winner

I want to comment on the interview of Wangari Matthai, whose eloquent words about the environment, the need to preserve, conserve, and protect, as a total priority rings so true, and so urgently today.

She said, for her, God is deeply on the mountain, and mentioned Mt. Kenya. This is so echoic of Moses on the mountain, the story of the Exodus, of Mt. Sinai, the Ten Commandments. I have to say this. And it is for all mountains that we climb daily, as we go about our often very difficult lives, encountering such inexpressible sorrows along the way, stories we never knew we would have to face, and in so facing, ask deep and deepening questions about God, spirituality, and our relationship to a Divine essence, within, and without.

It is a very modern feeling, certainly spoken by Kabbalists today, those mystics, of Judaism and beyond, that we are all of us, parts of the Divine, and that to divine this, perhaps takes a profound journey of soul. It does seem empathy is the key, and that we all of us have varying degrees of ruah, or soul, that breathless stuff, that makes us all take notice, that here is someone who really feels, at the deepest possible levels, for all mankind, for all that breathes and walks the earth, including the inanimate.

I will say this is The journey, and some are further along Jacob's ladder in making this journey than others.

We must take the mandate, the man date, as being love, and the compass as being compassion, and move forward together to make of this world, a glowing place, of dignity and hope for all. it's not hard when we consider a story, that brought us all to this place at this time. It seems so obvious that working for love, is the greatest of all joys. So then, why this divisiveness, when there is this vision, as promulgated by so many of Krista's beautiful interviewees.

Maybe, just maybe, it is God speaking when we hear words of love, and it is God also speaking the other words, which we must learn to disregard, because God is playing, a game of What's My Line?

Join me, in saying, it's about time to make that leap. And we can all of us, Jump the Gap!

very few, if any pay any attention to my writing, and I am all over the WEB because I do it, for love.


I am a Christian and hope to communicate to fellow believers how conservation is a holy thing far beyond just being something that is right to do. As I have brought environmental conscious into my life and my practices, it has brought me closer to God and a happier life. I began conserving, just to save money. But, as I encorporated more of these practices into my life, I became aware of how they affected me spiritually. I was becoming more in tune with the most basic of gifts that God has given us, and also the most essential gifts. These were calls to thanksgiving for things I typically take for granted, because in our society they are so easy to acquire. As I listened to Maathai's story I felt such a kinship, in that she was not just doing it out of moral obligation, but chasing after spiritual fulfillment. In the same way that sabbath, prayer, and fasting bring us deeper spiriutally, I think that conserving creation and taking part in its recreation are acts that bring us closer to our creator.

aBSOLUTELY Adored the interview by Krista Tippit with Wangari MAti - need to listen again to the podcast as I was mulit tasking during it!

Wangari Maathai inspired many people both in Kenya and beyond its borders. We will never see another person of her stature with the ability and foresight to combine the seemingly separate issues of women's empowerment and environmental conservation. Mama Miti was one of a kind. Sisi wananchi tunakupenda Mama! Mungu Akubariki!

I went to study in Kenya in 1995 through a program called Friends World. There were 20 of us living on a co-operative coffee farm in Machakos just 45 min south of Nairobi. We studied Ki- Swahili with Kenyan teachers and were introduced to to the land, people, cultures, history and politics of this rich diverse country. it changed my life forever, my biggest regret is that I did not meet Wangari Maathai at that time, and that I did not seize the moment to work with her Green Belt Movement. As students living there for a year, we each chose a project and area of study where we interned and immersed ourselves in something that was important and hopefully vital. What could be more important then this work that Wangari Maathai engaged in and lived for despite all odds. In her honor I am planting 7 trees and linking hands with movers and shakers who are walking there talk here in NY and globally. Thank you for airing this show again, it has moved me so and given me just the kind of nudge needed to act now and not regret what was not done in the past. There is nothing greater in this world then this work, so simple and yes so complex. Thank you Wangari Maathai!

I am submitting a picture of my class in Kenya planting a tree at a local public school.

Voices on the Radio

is the founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. She's the author of Replenishing the Earth and Unbowed: A Memoir.

Production Credits

Host/Producer: Krista Tippett

Managing Producer: Kate Moos

Associate Producer: Nancy Rosenbaum

Associate Producer: Shubha Bala

Associate Producer: Susan Leem

Technical Director/Producer: Chris Heagle

Senior Editor: Trent Gilliss

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This sustainability feature is supported by the Kendeda Sustainability Fund of the Tides Foundation.