Nobel-Winning Wangari Maathai on Democracy

Amid frenzied talk of freedom, a seasoned voice from Africa

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental activist, government minister, and winner of last year's Nobel Peace prize, said last night she knew of no blueprint to steer developing countries away from authoritarianism, and toward multi-party democracy.

"I think what is important to realize is no matter where you are starting your campaign, the objective is to empower your people so they can stand up for your rights, and so they get to the point where they feel they can decide who can govern," she said.

In an interview a few minutes before she delivered a speech at Cooper Union, Maathai, who founded Kenya's Green Belt Movement in 1977, said that American organizations and individuals had been able to "intervene" in her struggle against the government of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. On several occasions, they'd even managed to free her or other opposition figures from jail.

At the same time, she said international support for the Moi government—including American—had undermined her work.

As the administration of George W. Bush tries to make good on its promise to spread freedom and democracy around the globe, Maathai's views—that of a grassroots democracy campaigner who helped broaden Kenya's civic life—are especially relevant. While the U.S. focuses on an area it calls the "broader Middle East," the need for attention on Africa is no less acute. Many of its nations deal with the added burdens of poverty, the spread of diseases like AIDS, armed conflicts, or the process of rebuilding after war.

Maathai's movement, of mostly poor, rural women, has planted 30 million trees in Africa over the last three decades; the women started by sowing seven tree seeds in downtown Nairobi. What began as a bid to fight deforestation, and to provide jobs to Maathai's ex-husband's constituents, has developed into an international effort for better food security, environmental action, and civic education. The Nobel committee praised her holistic approach to sustainable development, which, they wrote, "embraces democracy, human rights, and women1s rights in particular."

"I used a tree, and it worked for me," she said, acknowledging that the model for Kenya, which is mostly rural, wasn't a perfect fit for developing nations with large urbanized populations. "The idea is not to replicate the movement. The idea is to understand it, and its values. It's a matter of being creative. Groups [working for change] need to study their people, understand their psyche, their strengths, and their weaknesses. And then, decide where the breaking point is—where they should break the vicious cycle that people find themselves in."

Maathai has used the Nobel "bully pulpit" to argue for African debt relief. Last night, she told the packed audience at Cooper Union that debt service alone consumes some 40 percent of Kenya's annual budget. She said she would argue to western audiences that many African debts were loaned in bad faith. "Ladies and gentleman of power, these debts were acquired by dictators—[people] you yourself knew were dictators—and stashed in the banks which you know about it." She spoke about global warming, saying, "I'm not here to condemn those who support or do not support the Kyoto protocol," a reference to the Bush administration's withdrawal from that treaty.

And she called the protests in places like Lebanon and Egypt important. "It's really wonderful, because it's people driven. Unless it's hijacked by leaders, it's more likely to last because it becomes internalized, and more likely to be protected by those people."

Kerry Kennedy introduced Maathai last night, calling her one of the "Robin Hoods of our time."

A program started by Kennedy's uncle, John F. Kennedy, had first brought Maathai to the U.S., in the early 1960's for studies that would eventually make her the first PhD in East and Central Africa. "I found myself in a small town in Atchison, Kansas," Maathai said.

It was there, she confided, that she picked up her Kansas accent.

 
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