Many of my interviews are conducted over long distances, by way of a clear channel communications miracle called an ISDN line. People are often surprised to hear this because these weekly conversations about “meaning, religion, ethics, and ideas” are singularly intimate. But I have come to enjoy the discipline of a long-distance circuit. I can close my eyes and listen deeply. I encounter my guests — as my listeners do — solely by way of the human voice.
Wangari Maathai has a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of our show “Planting the Future.” But I am glad I met her in person, because her physical presence is remarkable. She is a force of nature, with a beautiful face and flashing black eyes. She is palpably gracious but rather subdued until she starts speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it is not hard to imagine that this woman has stood up to a dictator and won, and that she has fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant 45 million 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 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 says, 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. 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 improbably faced off powerful economic forces and Kenya’s tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to 600 communities across Kenya and into 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. In the course of this conversation, Wangari Maathai describes 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 remains a practicing Catholic to this day. But life has 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. Climate change has created a volatile ecology across the Horn of Africa, and this 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, has known all along: 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 has 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. Wangari Maathai did not flinch. She has fielded many hard questions and situations in the course of her life, but I suspect that she has rarely flinched. She told me that she has 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. She continued:
“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.”
And, last month Wangari Maathai answered some of our executive producer’s questions about her latest book, Replenishing the Earth. Maathai discusses the necessity of science and religion in discovering deeper truths, how our “inner ecology” is “spiritually diminished” when the environment is impoverished, and how trees give meaning to mystery and life.