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Issue Date:  October 22, 2004

Kenyan wins Nobel Peace Prize


Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and advocate for poor women who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize Oct. 8, still has a fond attachment to a small Benedictine college in Atchison, Kan., where her life was “touched profoundly” during her days as a student in the early 1960s.

Maathai, 64, is the first African woman to receive the $1.3 million prize, which will be awarded Dec. 10 in Oslo, Norway.

In the statement explaining its decision, the Nobel Committee said that it chose Maathai “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

“Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment,” they said. “[Maathai] has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development.”

In an Oct. 8 interview with BBC Online, Maathai explained how linked are the fates of human beings and the planet they inhabit. “God created the planet from Monday to Friday. On Saturday he created human beings,” she told the BBC. “The truth of the matter is … if man was created on Tuesday, I usually say, he would have been dead on Wednesday, because there would not have been the essential elements that he needs to survive.”

Some of Maathai’s reverence for creation was planted at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), which sits on the bluffs of the Missouri River.

Upon hearing of the death of her adviser and major professor, Sr. John Marie Brazzel, Maathai wrote to the Mount community in a 1998 e-mail that her four years at the college “have partly made me who I am and may ever become.”

Maathai, who was educated by Christian missionaries in Kenya, came to Kansas in 1960 after receiving a scholarship to study in the United States.

Many of the sisters still remember Maathai, who was known as “Mary Jo” while she studied in Kansas, as a captivating speaker and an excellent student. Stories recall a lively person who came with nothing but $50 in her pocket, a cardboard suitcase and her brains -- a person who was sometimes homesick for nduma, or arrowroots, a vegetable of her native country.

“She never expressed a desire to stay in the United States because of its greater possibility for financial success. She always wanted to go back. It was always her aim to help her people,” said Sr. Joachim Holthaus, a dorm director and music professor in 1960.

Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, on April 1, 1940. She grew up in a five-room, mud-walled structure whose sides are plastered with whitish soil. It still stands, and is surrounded by a variety of indigenous trees, its roof painted green to match the environment. Her father Muta Wanjugu, who died in the 1970s, owned a farm and raised cotton, coffee and tea. Her mother, Lydia Wanjiru Muta, was still planting trees around the family house until she passed away in 2000.

After she graduated from the Mount College in 1964 with a B.S. in biology, Maathai earned an M.S. in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 and then a Ph.D. in anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

When she returned to Kenya in 1966 after receiving her master’s degree, Maathai was moved to action by seeing the degradation of forests in her native land. In the absence of trees, heavy rains had washed away much of the topsoil and silt was clogging the rivers.

In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement, which has encouraged ordinary citizens, especially poor women -- who are traditionally responsible for gathering firewood -- to plant trees in order to preserve the environment and to improve their quality of life.

Through the Green Belt Movement, volunteers have planted about 30 million indigenous trees across Kenya. Other countries have copied Maathai’s initiative, including Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho and Ethiopia.

Maathai has been jailed, beaten and harassed for her outspokenness in opposition to land grabbing and in support of poor women. In 1989, she campaigned against President Daniel arap Moi’s government when he proposed building a skyscraper and a six-story statue of himself in the middle of Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s only public green space. After her protest, no investor was willing to support the project. In 1992, she and other women stripped naked in downtown Nairobi to protest police abuses, resorting, as she said, to “something they knew traditionally would act on the men. … It is a curse to see your mother naked.”

Maathai has three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta; her husband left her in a nasty divorce on the grounds that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful and too hard to control.”

When Moi’s government was defeated in 2002, Maathai was elected to Parliament with 98 percent of the vote. Since 2003 she has been assistant minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife for the Republic of Kenya.

Today’s Kenyan government was nothing but elated upon learning that their native daughter had won the Peace Prize. Back in the United States, Maathai’s friends were hearing about the announcement, too. Sr. Thomasita Homan was awake at 4 a.m. on Oct. 8. When she turned on the radio to hear if there was any breaking news, she was ecstatic to hear that her friend was the Peace Prize winner. Homan has nominated Maathai for the prize twice in past years.

On learning of the Nobel award, Maathai said, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope.” One of the first things she did after hearing the news was to plant a Nandi flame tree at the foot of Mount Kenya, a slope outside Nairobi that she said had been a source of inspiration to her and to generations before.

Of her tree-planting project in Kenya, a country that is 85 percent Christian, Maathai told the May/June issue of World Watch, “I thought there would be nothing better for the Christians to do than plant a tree and bring back a life, the way Christ came back to life.”

Her faith in resurrection is clear not only through her work to revive the forests, but also in the e-mail she wrote on the death of her college adviser. “At this time, my life at the Mount comes back, all the beautiful days at the Mount,” she wrote then. “It is so painful to think that she is not quite there in the same spirit and energy. For me, I can only sit here and cry alone. And then comfort myself by the faith which teaches us that she is in Heaven: with the Lord. The one for whom she lived and did so much good on this planet. She, and the others at the Mount, touched my life so profoundly and made it so much better then … and now.

“In my tradition we would say, ‘She has been called. May she sleep where it rains and where there is dew.’ ”

Benedictine Sr. Antonia Ryan is an NCR staff writer. Her e-mail is Joseph Ngala contributed to this report from Kenya.

National Catholic Reporter, October 22, 2004

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