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
Then, as we passed pineapple plantations and small markets on the rutted
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.