Mama Miti’s Peace - Wangari Maathi and the Nobel Prize
When I decided to talk about the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre in my November “Africa Focus” column, my thoughts were on the U.S. presidential election and what America would be like in its wake. While I could not predict the outcome of the election, I knew that, whatever it was, talk of peace would be in order. I also had in mind the season of atonement and peace in Judaism, Islam and Christianity that falls in the latter part of the year.
Then, in September, my good friend Djibril Diallo, communications director for the United Nations Development Program and chief spokesperson for the president of the U.N. General Assembly, invited me to a media breakfast with the president of Senegal, Abdoulaye Wade. President Wade spoke at length about his vision for a global Islamic-Christian summit that would foster greater understanding between the two sides. The speech President Wade gave that night upon accepting the Human Rights Award from the International League for Human Rights was the basis of this month’s “Final Word.”
The “peace” theme came together when world-renowned environmentalist Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, was named winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Kenya’s assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Maathai, 64, triumphed over 193 candidates, including George W. Bush, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Pope John Paul II. This is a remarkable woman of many firsts. She is the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize and the first East or Central African woman to earn a Ph.D. (University of Nairobi). She has a master’s in biology from the University of Pittsburgh and a bachelor’s in biological sciences from St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas.
They call her “Mama Miti,” which is Kiswahili for “mother of trees,” for in her fight against deforestation, she and her grassroots movement have planted millions of trees across Africa. Maathai is a mother of three, a member of parliament, former candidate for the presidency of Kenya, winner of countless international awards, and holder of an honorary doctorate from Yale University. She was brutalized and jailed numerous times for her activism during the regime of Daniel arap Moi. Her husband divorced her, accusing her of adultery and complaining that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.”
Sample her words: “We told our colleagues internationally, ‘Check if your government is involved. Why would you want to destroy a small park in Nairobi when no one would touch Central Park?’ “ The occasion was her mobilization, in 1989, of international support to stop Robert Maxwell and other international investors from building an office block in the only green area within Nairobi’s central business district.
“I’m sick and tired of men who are so incompetent that every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia to reassure themselves. I’m not interested in that part of the anatomy. The issues I’m dealing with require the utilization of what's above the neck. If you don't have anything there, leave me alone.” This by way of dismissing the threats of an MP to circumcise her if she set foot in his district.
Mama Miti was at the foot of Mount Kenya when she got the news about the Nobel Prize. It's a peaceful setting, where trees abound. The mountain has been her inspiration, she says. Peace.
By Rosalind McLymont