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January 2005
The Prize is Right
By Mia MacDonald

On the morning of October 8, true to form, Wangari Maathai was trying to keep to her schedule, but having trouble. A radio interview ran long and soon after she picked me up, we hit Nairobi’s notorious rush hour traffic. She doesn’t like to keep people waiting and she was expected at a meeting in rural Nyeri, where she was born and which she represents in Kenya’s Parliament. So, already it was hectic.

Then, as we passed pineapple plantations and small markets on the rutted road from Nairobi, Maathai’s mobile phone began to ring. Her assistant’s phone did, too. Had she heard, a local journalist asked, that she’d been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? Another said that she was on the shortlist. No, she laughed, she hadn’t heard anything. To another caller she said it was honor enough to be nominated. Looking both amused and bemused Maathai told me the same thing as we bounced along in the van.

Now I began to wonder. Was this a joke? What was up? I’d seen a preview story on the Nobel the previous night: the frontrunners were people working on nuclear disarmament and Iraq, not Wangari Maathai. It all began to seem like some strange rumor had spread among the Kenyan press. I tried to put it out of my mind. After all, I had my own agenda with Maathai. I had first met her in 2001 and was interviewing her that morning for a planned book on culture and the environment. I’d come that morning to try and ratchet up some hours of taping. Maathai’s schedule earlier in the week had caused my planned 20 hours of taping to wither to about one. She’d suggested that in the van we could speak without interruption. I began to see the chances of that dwindling, too.

Sigh. I turned off my recorder. Maathai, still hands-on despite her status as Kenya’s assistant environment minister, had to arrange the PA system for her meeting that day. So she was on the phone when the Norwegian Ambassador called. Her assistant took a message. Could Professor Maathai please call Norway? She couldn’t, since her phone doesn’t dial internationally. The PA system was set. The Ambassador had left his Nairobi number. We looked at each other. She opened her hands in a gesture she uses for “how about that?” or “what’s going on here?” and pulled a face.

A few minutes passed and the phone rang. It was the Norwegian Ambassador again. He had news. “Mr. Ambassador?” she queried, straining to hear on the erratic line. I watched, anxious for news. Her eyes narrowed, then got wide. Then she was laughing, putting her hand in the air and saying, one after the other, “oh, wow, great, yay.” She closed the phone’s lip and said, “We won it.” The Nobel Institute, the Ambassador told her, would be calling shortly.

The Maelstrom
Wangari Muta Maathai—member of parliament, assistant minister for environment and natural resources, founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted nearly 30 million trees across Kenya through networks of rural women, democracy campaigner, first woman department chair at the University of Nairobi, first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a Ph.D., and a daughter of rural Kenya—had been awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Wow.

I turned to her and in typical semi-articulate American fashion said, “That is amazing. I’m so happy for you. Wow.” I was dumbstruck. So was she, but just for a moment. She smiled broadly and then we hugged for what seemed like a long time. Her assistant, Alex, in the seat in front of us, had a broad smile on his face. As we moved apart, Maathai said, softly, “I didn’t know anyone was listening.” There were tears in her eyes, the first I’d ever seen. The moment stood and then passed.

The cell phones began to jangle with more media calls now that the news was out. The van pulled in to the Outspan Hotel in Nyeri where we’d planned to have a cup of tea and a quick bathroom break. The local media, Reuters and a journalist from Norwegian Broadcasting were there. They clapped. I grasped Maathai’s hand and then she walked into the hotel. I gave her a wide berth. It was, after all, 15 minutes to noon, Kenya time, and a whole new world. Maathai got the call from Oslo as she exited the ladies’ room. Now it was official.

The maelstrom was not far. Well-wishers at the hotel descended on Maathai, smiling and clapping, thrusting hands forward in congratulations. I left the scene to watch the announcement from Oslo on CNN in the deserted hotel bar. “Another surprise from Oslo,” the newscaster said. “She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular,” Ole Danbolt Mjos, the Nobel Committee Chairperson said. “She thinks globally and acts locally.” I found myself wiping tears that I hadn’t expected to fill my ears and my cheeks.

I recovered somewhat. I realized I had my tape recorder. A few of the hotel’s employees, all men, had joined me in front of the television. I ask them what they think. “I’m very happy,” one says quietly, gaining volume as he speaks. “I voted for her. She’s my MP.” Yes, he says, the Prize will help Maathai win her latest campaign for Kenya’s forests. “She’ll continue fighting because the forests have been damaged. We appreciate that now [and] we will take care.”

I walked back to the garden. On my way, I stepped into an office where a young woman was working. I tell her the news and ask her reaction. “I am happy for her and for all women, especially in Kenya,” she says, rather shyly, giving her name as Njeri. Why?, I ask. “She’s been a role model for most women and encouraging for most of us” came the answer, swift and unprompted.

In the gardens, Maathai was surrounded by journalists and alternately answering their questions and answering those of reporters on the phone, seamlessly shifting from English to Swahili to her mother tongue, Kikuyu.

I walked closer to Maathai, talking to reporters and trying to catch snatches of the interviews. “And like the mountain [Mount Kenya] I am facing I hope you will stand very fast and continue to inspire people,” she said. Then, “I’m so overwhelmed at this moment. I never thought that the world would recognize me this way.” What would she do next?, a reporter asked. The Prize, Maathai said, “should only make me work harder for the years that are left, and inspire those who have been following so that they can walk along the same footsteps I have for the environment, and for the good of the people and the world in which we live.”

Maathai quickly universalized the prize. She has, after all, worked with countless communities and courageous people in Kenya over the years. I have also come to know her generous spirit, forged in adolescence and strengthened by her adult experiences. “We” is a common word for her; “I” is less favored. I caught this: “I want to say that I am the person the world sees, but behind me are millions of people, millions of hands throughout the world, but mostly here in Kenya who tried to do what we asked them to do: to take care of the Earth.”

The hotel manager brought a tree for her to plant, a Nandi flame, indigenous to this area at the foot of Mount Kenya. A hole had been dug and a shovel brought. But Maathai got onto her knees and scooped the rich, red soil in around the small trunk. “We don’t get this treatment in the field,” she reminded the small crowd that had gathered, smiling. Cameras whirred, including my own.

In the months leading up to the Nobel, Maathai had been campaigning in her constituency, in the press, and in Parliament for further protections for Kenya’s fast-dwindling intact forests. Many had been slated to be cleared to make way for tree plantations of fast-growing exotic species and cultivation of cash crops. This so-called “shamba system” was introduced by the British and maintained by Kenya’s post-independence rulers. It has been rife with corruption and in Maathai’s view, has put species, watersheds, soil and even local climates at risk.

As native forests disappear, with them go biodiversity and strong, resilient ecosystems. Farmers and communities throughout Kenya complain about a lack of water and good rains. Maathai had been saying to them, “look at the roots of the problem”—quite literally. She also said she would rather not be re-elected to Parliament than see Kenya’s forests destroyed. “The shamba system in indigenous forests is suicidal,” Maathai titled her position paper on the issue.

The tree planted, I wonder what is next. It’s only an hour into the reality of the prize. We are all pretty punchy. The assembled media urged Maathai to cancel her meeting. Forget your constituents for this one day, they argue, and return to Nairobi for television interviews. But Maathai is not a woman easily deterred or wont to forget her connection to the grassroots. For nearly 30 years, she has worked with rural communities, mostly women, to improve their environment, provide a small income, expand the number of nutritious foods they grow and eat, and increase the voice they have in communities.

So we got back into the car—speechless for a few minutes—and drove to the meeting site, a field near a school in a small village outside Nyeri. Hundreds of people were waiting, not for the Nobel Peace Prize winner—they didn’t know anything about that—but for their Member of Parliament, their champion. Maathai didn’t even tell them about the prize until well into her speech. The state of the forests and the lack of water and rain were her priorities. She spoke as reporters from the Associated Press and German TV waited.

An hour passed. The media calls continued. I crouched at the back of the school in the dry foot-high grass and tried to prioritize. I had to ask many of the reporters calling to call back. To a few I say, “Look, we’re in a field in Kenya. We’re trying our best.” She did speak to several media on the phone and urged people who heard the news to celebrate the Peace Prize by taking a concrete action. “Plant a tree,” she said. “Plant millions of trees.”

Then another call came on the district commissioner’s cell phone. The President, Mwai Kibaki, wanted Maathai back in Nairobi. She would have to leave; a helicopter was waiting. So she cut the meeting short, the main business having concluded. We arrived in another field, the sun bright on the white metal of the helicopter. As we flew over the countryside of her childhood, Maathai brushed dust from her shoes. I looked out the window. The land below looked very green.

At the airport, we were met by a government car. En route to State House (Kenya’s White House), police motorcycles waved the government vehicle through Nairobi’s late afternoon traffic. We stopped once, at a roundabout. Two men in a car in the next lane recognized Maathai and began shouting their congratulations. She smiled back and raised her arms in acknowledgement.

Soon after, in the formal gardens of State House (surely a legacy of the British), beneath a colonnade, President Kibaki, with Maathai at his side, declared that Kenya was “in the mood for celebrating.” He and a broadly grinning Maathai made short statements and took questions from a scrum of assembled media. The light began to turn golden as it does most nights around six p.m. in Nairobi, the nearby equator enforcing regularity on daylight and night.

Then the celebrating began. Modest celebrating to be sure. Maathai nursed a cup of tea and a piece of pizza that quickly went cold on the terrace of the Fairview Hotel while a small group of international journalists interviewed her. Into the evening, Maathai did interviews for Kenyan television, BBC World Service, and in quick takes between live appearances, talked to even more media as they rang in, non-stop. A media call ended; a new one was waiting. “The country is on fire,” a tired but jubilant Maathai told the journalist assigned by the Nobel Peace Prize Committee to interview her over an intermittent cell phone line. Voice hoarse, she insisted on finishing the night with one final interview in Kikuyu that began after 10 p.m.

The next morning, the covers of the Kenyan papers featured a smiling, luminous Maathai from the day before, cell phone in hand. They crowed about what the Nobel Peace Prize meant for Kenya. They also trumpeted the 100 million shillings that come with it and speculated on how Maathai would spend the money now in her “handbag.” I saw Aggrey, the doorman, who I knew was a Maathai fan. “She beat Bush and Pope John,” he said of the Nobel. “It’s wonderful. I was very happy.”

I took the pulse of other Kenyans I encountered. Cyrus, the Fairview Hotel driver I’ve worked with over the past few years declared his satisfaction and pride. “She is a very important person for all of Africa,” he said emphatically. “She is a Kenyan, not a woman, not a man,” he averred, striking a small blow for gender equality (he and I have been discussing it over the years). I asked him about Maathai’s having been ridiculed by many male Kenyan political leaders in the past, including former strong man president Daniel arap Moi, and some of her critics in the fight over the shamba system and Kenya’s forests.

He made a dismissive gesture. “Now we will be listening,” he said. “We must listen.” When the rains came, Cyrus assured me, as did several of his colleagues, “I will be planting trees. Yes, definitely.” Florence, who works in the hotel’s business center, agreed that Maathai deserved the prize. “I like her. She has done good work,” she said. “An iron core lady” is how Edward, another driver, described Maathai. “We love her,” he exulted, tapping the steering wheel as he spoke. “She is the best woman we have in Kenya.”

I made my way to Maathai’s morning press conference at the Green Belt Movement office, where tall, broad trees, along with seedlings, are plentiful in a wide green lawn. The sun was out. It appeared that Maathai’s message from the night before had gotten through. Nairobi’s roadside nurseries looked freshly stocked with all manner of trees.

Mia MacDonald is a policy analyst and writer based in New York who works on environment, development, gender and population issues. She has taught in the human rights program at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and is a senior fellow of the Worldwatch Institute. Note: a shorter version of this piece appeared in the
Los Angeles Times.


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