Program Particulars: Planting the Future

Program Particulars

(01:18) First Kenyan Woman to Earn Doctorate

A trained biologist, Maathai received her Masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s but, upon her return to Kenya, couldn't find work in her field. Listen to her story about how she chose a position at the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi (now University of Nairobi), where she received her doctorate and where she was a member of the faculty for 15 years.

» Enlarge the image Tea is one of Kenya's main exports. Evaporating water from Lake Victoria supplies much of the needed moisture for native plants including tea. Kenyan tea is grown at elevations of 5000-7000 feet. The tea bush is an evergreen in tropical climates. Due to that fact, there are no first, second, or autumnal flushes. The tea is picked every 17 days year round. (Photo: Geof Worrall)

Tea is one of Kenya's main exports. Evaporating water from Lake Victoria supplies much of the needed moisture for native plants including tea. Kenyan tea is grown at elevations of 5000-7000 feet. Forests have been cleared to make way for the increasing number of tea and coffee farms being planted. (Photo: Geof Worrall)

(01:30) The Green Belt Movement

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 as part of the National Council of Women of Kenya (Maendeleo Ya Wanawake). Pioneered in the United Kingdom, "green belts" are designated areas of park, farm, or uncultivated land around a community where development is heavily restricted in part to protect natural environments.

The non-governmental organization is a grassroots effort based in Kenya. The movement teaches and organizes impoverished rural women to plant trees and fight powerful political and business interests who clear-cut forests and hasten desertification in Kenya. By preserving their forests, the women preserve the wood, which serves as their primary fuel source, and curtail soil erosion. The Green Belt Movement is an inherently feminist movement that empowers women and trains them in trades to earn an income. More than 30 million trees have been planted and 30,000 women involved in its program.

(01:43) President Daniel arap Moi

Daniel arap Moi served as president of Kenya for over 20 years. Moi was a member of the Sudanic Kalenjin people, an ethnic minority in the predominantly Bantu nation. He was educated as a teacher and was appointed minister of education in the early 1960s. After Kenya's first president Jomo Kenyatta died in 1978, Moi became president. Although he was a member of the Kikuyu-dominated party, the Kenya African Democratic Union (KANU), he elevated many of his Kalenjin peers to positions of authority in his government and neglected the interests of many other groups, including the Kikuyu people.

With the help of the army, Moi suppressed a coup attempt in 1982. Moi endorsed many pro-Western policies and, as a result, Kenya received a large amount of foreign aid. Many of his critics accused him and his government of corruption and perpetration of civil rights abuses. Moi faced much dissent and protests during the 1997 elections, which he won. Violent protests continued after the election and many Kenyans, particularly Kikuyu people, were killed. After five terms in office, Moi unexpectedly stepped down in deference to constitutional term limits.

(01:53) Music Element

"Missa Luba: Sanctus" from Missa Luba: An African Mass; 10 Kenyan Folk Melodies, performed by Muungano National Choir, Kenya


» Enlarge the image Mount Kenya at sunrise. (Photo: Angela Sevin/Flickr)

Mount Kenya at sunrise. (Photo: Angela Sevin/Flickr)

(02:18) Kikuyu Tribe

The Kikuyu are a Bantu-speaking, agrarian society living primarily in the highlands northeast of Nairobi. One of 42 ethnic groups in Kenya, the Kikuyu community is the most populous, numbering more than six million people. Despite being the largest ethnic group in Kenya, they held little political influence during Daniel arap Moi's presidency. The Kikuyu people opposed colonialism and fought for Kenyan independence from the British, most notably in the Mau Mau Uprising. Christian missionaries accompanied the British presence, and today more than 70 percent of Kikuyu people claim to be Christian, but they continue to hold on to their traditional beliefs and rituals as well.

Mount Kenya, or Mount Kirinyaga, holds special significance for the Kikuyu people. It is a sacred place and forms the basis for the Kikuyu's creation myth. Tribal legend says that the god Ngai created "the mountain of brightness," as an earthly dwelling place from which to oversee his creation and his people. To Gikuyu, the founder of the Kikuyu tribe, he gave the land in the Mount Kirinyaga's foothills and instructed Gikuyu to settle among a copse of fig trees, which the Kikuyu regard as sacred today. Many Kikuyu still observe the custom of building their homes with the entrances facing the mountain.

God created the primoridal parents, Gikuyu and Mumbi, and from Mount Kenya showed them the land on which they were to settle: west from Mount Kenya to the Aberdares [mountain range], on to Ngong Hills and Kilimambogo, then north to Garbatula. Together, Gikuyu and Mumbi had ten daughters—Wanjiru, Wambui, Wangari, Wanjiku, Wangui, Wangeci, Wanjeri, Nyambura, Wairimu, and Wamuyu—but they had no sons. The legend goes that, when the time came for the daughters to marry, Gikuyu prayed to God under a holy fig tree, mugumo, as was his tradition, to send him sons-in-law. God told him to instruct nine of his daughters—the tenth was too young to be married—to go into the forest and to each cut a stick as long as she was tall. When the daughters returned, Gikuyu took the sticks and with them built an altar under the mugumo tree, on which he sacrificed a lamb. As the fire was consuming the lamb's body, nine men appeared and walked out of the flames.

Gikuyu took them home and each daughter married the man who was the same height as she was, and together they gave rise to the ten clans to which all Kikuyus belong. (Even though the youngest daughter, Wamuyu, did not get married, she did have children.) Each clan is known for a particular trade or quality, such as prophecy, craftsmanship, and medicine. My clan, Anjiru, is associated with leadership. The daughters made the clans matrilineal, but many privileges, such as inheritance and ownership of land, livestock, and perennial crops, were gradually transferred to men. It is not explained how women lost their rights and privileges.

(03:21) Fig Tree

For an fascinating documentary, which recently won a Peabody Award, about the sycamore fig tree and its relationships with wasps, watch The Queen of Trees.

(04:16) Missionaries in Africa

Colonial missionaries, over the centuries, have had an impact on the cultures and traditions of the indigenous peoples of Africa. For a Zimbabwean perspective, listen to the On Being program "Sacred Wilderness, an African Story" with Isabel Mukonyora.

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(07:03) Music Element

"The Well" from African Odyssey, performed by Seydu


This song opens with the playing of the sanza, a thumb piano with metal tines, and continues on with calabasa and the shekere, a dried gourd with a net of beads woven around it. The lyrics focus on the environmental devastation of the region brought about by greed, war, and neglect:

Where there is a well, there is water  Where there is war  The children cry out with sorrow  Sierra Leone has no rice to eat  Now the well is dry  Where shall we find life?  Why have we been so wasteful?  There are no fish in the sea.


(07:13) Genesis Creation Story

The first chapter of Genesis tells the story of creation in which God creates the world in six days. Upon completion of each of His acts, the phrase is repeated: "And God saw that it was good." Rather than focusing on the goodness of creation, Maathai says, the Christian missionaries in Kenya chose to focus on the final passage of that chapter in which the first man and woman are given rule over the Earth:

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." And God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.

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(13:44) Music Element

"African Oasis II" from The Women Gather — 30th Anniversary, performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock


(15:16) First UN Women's Conference

The first world conference on the status of women was convened at the instruction of the UN General Assembly and was held during the summer of 1975 in Mexico City, Mexico. The UN General Assembly convened called for a plan that would work towards the equality of women in the world. Of the 133 participating nations, 113 delegations were led by women. A formal plan of action was passed that called for minimum targets to be met in five years. It focused on securing equal access for women to resources such as education, employment opportunities, political participation, health services, housing, nutrition, and family planning.

The Green Belt Movement evolved from this meeting. Wangari Maathai recounts this time in her book Unbowed: A Memoir.

In the two years leading up to the women's conference, at both the Environment Liaison Centre and the NCWK [National Council of Women of Kenya], we were asking ourselves what our agenda should be for Mexico City. The NCWK held a number of seminars at which we heard from various constituencies, including women from the rural areas. These women confirmed what the researcher's study had suggested. They didn't have enough wood for fuel or fencing, fodder for their livestock, water to cook with or drink, or enough for themselves or their families to eat.

As I sat listening to the women talk about water, energy, and nutrition, I could see that everything they lacked depended on the environment…When the representatives of the NCWK returned from the Mexico City conference (I was unable to go because there were not sufficient funds), they carried the same message: We needed to do something about water and energy. The conference participants had also concluded that the world needed to address the realities of rural women, their poverty, the overall lack of development, and the state of the environment that sustained them.

It suddenly became clear. Not only was the livestock industry threatened by a deteriorating environment, but I, my children, my students, my fellow citizens, and my entire country would pay the price. The connection between the symptoms of environmental degradation and their causes — deforestation, de-vegetation, unsustainable agriculture, and soil loss — were self-evident. Something had to be done. We could not just deal with the manifestations of the problems. We had to get to the root causes of those problems.

…It just came to me: "Why not plant trees?" The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods. The would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goats. The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food. They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.

This is how the Green Belt Movement began. The rest of it perhaps was sheer luck…

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(22:40) Music Element

"Kaung'a Yachee" from Missa Luba: An African Mass; 10 Kenyan Folk Melodies, performed by Muungano National Choir, Kenya


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(24:48) Music Element

"Shaking the Tree" from Shaking the Tree: 16 Golden Greats, performed by Peter Gabriel with Youssou N'Dour


» Enlarge the image Workers plant trees on grassland outside of Beijing in July 2005. This clear-cut area was destroyed by wind and desertification and became a major source of spring sandstorms before the government invested 12,000 U.S. dollars for recovery. The Chinese government implemented a sandstorm source control program in March 2000, which is investing 6.75 billion dollars to reclaim once barren lands. (Photo: Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

Workers plant trees on grassland outside of Beijing in July 2005. This clear-cut area was destroyed by wind and desertification and became a major source of spring sandstorms before the government invested 12,000 U.S. dollars for recovery. The Chinese government implemented a sandstorm source control program in March 2000, which is investing 6.75 billion dollars to reclaim once barren lands. (Photo: Cancan Chu/Getty Images)

(27:29) Citation from Nobel Committee

The following passage was excerpted from a speech by the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, who presented the Nobel Peace Prize to Wangari Maathai on December 10, 2004:

But where does tree-planting come in? 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. Consider the conflict in Darfur in the Sudan. What catches the eye is that this is a conflict between Arabs and Africans, between the government, various armed militia groups, and civilians. Below this surface, however, lies the desertification that has taken place in the last few decades, especially in northern Darfur. The desert has spread southwards, forcing Arab nomads further and further south year by year, bringing them into conflict with African farmers. In the Philippines, uncontrolled deforestation has helped to provoke a rising against the authorities. In Mexico, soil erosion and deforestation have been factors in the revolt in Chiapas against the central government. In Haiti, in Amazonas, and in the Himalayas, deforestation and the resulting soil erosion have contributed to deteriorating living conditions and caused tension between population groups and countries. In many countries deforestation, often together with other problems, leads to migration to the big cities, where the lack of infrastructure is another source of further conflict.

» Enlarge the image Wangari Maathai plants a memorial tree next to the a construction site in Nagakute in Aichi prefecture, Japan. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

Wangari Maathai plants a memorial tree next to the a construction site in Nagakute in Aichi prefecture, Japan. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

(29:33) Concept of Mottainai

The traditional Japanese concept of mottainai is based on the Buddhist concept of using resources with respect. Mottainai is commonly used by Japanese people to describe wastefulness. If a child would leave food on his plate, his mother might say, "Mottainai, finish your food!" or "What a waste!" Japan's prime minister recently incorporated the term in his 3R Initiative for sustainability, which he presented at the G8 Summit in 2005. In the following article, one Japanese man discusses the concept and how it applies to a recently passed food conservation law:

About a quarter of the food served at wedding receptions is left on plates and thrown away, according to a survey released by the Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry shortly before the food recycling law went into effect on April 1, 2001. Most Japanese people over a certain age would describe such wastefulness as "mottainai." It will be extremely mottainai if that word, as well as a concept it represents, is discarded like leftover food.

Mottainai is often used in everyday life to describe wastefulness. For example, throwing away clothes is mottainai if they still can be worn. Japanese language dictionaries define mottainai as:

  • "A regrettable situation in which something is treated wastefully or is not effectively utilized."
  • "A regrettable situation in which something is wasted without its value being fully utilized."
  • "A situation in which something still usable is thrown away, something dispensable is used, or someone who can still work has not yet displayed his or her ability."

It is not easy to translate mottainai into English.

There is a story about translating the word into English. When officials of the former Environment Agency explained the meaning of mottainai to Morris Strong, secretary general of the Earth Summit conference in 1992, Strong suggested, after a little thought, that "sophisticated modesty" might be an appropriate translation, given its spirit.

Mottainai is different from "kechi" (stingy). Mottainai fully recognizes the value, ability or cultural nature inherent in things. It contains a strong message that things should not be wasted. I remember a number of occasions in my childhood when I was scolded by my parents with "mottainai!" for my wastefulness. The word was so strongly instilled in me that I flinched every time my parents uttered the word. The concept of mottainai was deeply rooted in the everyday life of ordinary Japanese people during the Edo period (1603-1868). Cotton kimono were washed and dyed time and again until they were worn out. After the clothes shrank from repeated washing, they were used to make clothes for children. When they were worn out, they were used as washcloths or mats. When they became tattered, they were burned, and the ash was spread over the vegetable fields. The ash helped the to promote new life. It was a perfect recycling society, nothing was wasted. This spirit was more or less maintained in Japan until the end of World War II.

We cannot blame the disruption of the tradition merely on the influence of U.S. culture, which extols mass production and mass consumption. Let us return to the issue of leftover food. The Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries Ministry recently conducted a survey on 1,000 households and 3,560 business operators, including restaurants, about food wastage. The amount of food discarded was highest at wedding receptions, at 23.9 percent, which far outnumbered 7.7 percent at households and 3.6 percent at restaurants. The food recycling law requires food-processing and food-distribution companies, restaurants and other businesses, which potentially discard excess food, to recycle at least 20 percent of food destined for garbage dumps. We must keep it in mind that more than half of the food consumed in this country is imported. Japan annually imports 2.7 million tons of grain, or 73 percent of the national requirement.

The country also relies on imports for 20 percent of its vegetables and 50 percent of its meat and fruit products. A large quantity of quality seafood products are also imported. However, the supply of imported food supplies is inextricably linked to a number of global environmental problems. Firstly, by importing food we are exhausting foreign countries' valuable water resources. The production of 1 ton of wheat requires 1,000 tons of fresh water. This equates to Japan, despite having plentiful reserves of fresh water, importing 27 billion tons of water from the United States and developing countries in Asia. Mathematically, the volume of water is equivalent to the volume of water flowing down the Shinanogawa river, the nation's longest river, in two years. Effective use of that amount of water would produce food for about 480 million people. That would save millions of children from hunger and prevent international disputes over water rights.

Japan, for its part, can no longer remain complacent about food supplies from the viewpoint of national security, in case food imports are disrupted, or if food prices rise dramatically. We must try to increase our food production to a level approaching self-sufficiency. Germany, which was isolated and experienced severe food shortages during the two world wars in the 20th century, is very conscious of food supplies. It is said that 20 percent of the vegetables Germans eat at home are grown in their backyards. Japan can learn from Germany in this respect. How many people could be saved and how well could food resources be distributed, if Japan economized on food consumption?

Mottainai has a deep meaning: It not only teaches us the importance of not wasting food, both at home and throughout the country, but also prompts us to think of what goes on in other parts of the world. Talk of food leftovers may spoil the festive mood of wedding receptions, but I am positive that this bitter pill will turn out to be nourishment for people in the future.

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(32:17) Music Element

"Cinquante Six" from The Source, performed by Ali Farka Toure


(38:01) The Book of Hosea

The following passage of Hosea, chapter 4 was taken from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:

Hear the word of the Lord, O people of Israel; for the Lord has an indictment against the inhabitants of the land. There is no faithfulness or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, and murder, and stealing and adultery break out; bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns, and all who live in it languish; together with the wild animals and the birds of the air, even the fish of the sea are perishing. Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night, and I will destroy your mother.

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; they changed their glory into shame. They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity. And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways, and repay them for their deeds. They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply; because they have forsaken the Lord to devote themselves to whoredom. Wine and new wine take away the understanding.

My people consult a piece of wood, and their divining rod gives them oracles. For a spirit of whoredom has led them astray, and they have played the whore, forsaking their God. They sacrifice on the tops of the mountains, and make offerings upon the hills, under oak, poplar, and terebinth, because their shade is good. Therefore your daughters play the whore, and your daughters-in-law commit adultery. I will not punish your daughters when they play the whore, nor your daughters-in-law when they commit adultery; for the men themselves go aside with whores, and sacrifice with temple prostitutes; thus a people without understanding comes to ruin. Though you play the whore, O Israel, do not let Judah become guilty. Do not enter into Gilgal, or go up to Beth-aven, and do not swear, "As the Lord lives." Like a stubborn heifer, Israel is stubborn; can the Lord now feed them like a lamb in a broad pasture? Ephraim is joined to idols— let him alone. When their drinking is ended, they indulge in sexual orgies; they love lewdness more than their glory. A wind has wrapped them in its wings, and they shall be ashamed because of their altars.

» Enlarge the image An April 1999 photo shows Wangari Maathai challenging hired security people in the Karura Forest on the outskirts of the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

An April 1999 photo shows Wangari Maathai challenging hired security people in the Karura Forest on the outskirts of the Kenyan capitol of Nairobi. (Photo: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

(39:59) Endangered Forest of Karura

More than one-third of the Karura Forest, located on the edge of Nairobi, was slated for clear-cutting in 1998. Supported by President Daniel arap Moi, high-end homes were to be built on the land. After a series of vandalism of equipment by protesters, private guards were hired to guard the area. Maathai and other women marched to plant seedlings in the cleared area, where she and others were beaten. She defied authorities and filed a complaint, signing it with her blood shed during the beating. In 2003 the development plan was abandoned.

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(40:58) Music Element

"African Oasis II" from The Women Gather — 30th Anniversary, performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock


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(45:42) Music Element

"There Is No God Like Him", performed in studio by Wangari Maathai


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(46:57) Music Element

"Shaking the Tree" from Shaking the Tree: 16 Golden Greats, performed by Peter Gabriel with Youssou N'Dour


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(49:06) Music Element

"Diarabi" from Sya, performed by Issa Bagayogo


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.

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