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Interview With Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai

Aired October 6, 2007 - 12:30:00   ET


ISHA SESAY, HOST: Hello, I'm Isha Sesay filling in for Femi Oke. This is INSIDE AFRICA, your weekly look at life and issues on the continent.
In this week's show, an in-depth discussion with Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai on her environmental work, her unlikely education, overcoming adversity and the challenges of being a pioneer.


WANGARI MAATHAI, NOBEL LAUREATE: So, many times they would say, I'm a white woman in black skin.


SESAY: Also ahead, Italian bankers finance a Ghanaian business that's improving the lives of Africans on two continents.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: If we contribute to the economy of the host country, then we can also be some agents for the development of our country, of our region.


SESAY: We begin with the Nobel Peace Prize winner, environmentalist, political reformer and trailblazer. All of these titles will describe one woman: Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who is using her name recognition to influence global environmental policies. Her autobiography "Unbowed" recently came out in paperback, and is currently on "The New York Times" best-seller list. Femi Oke recently caught up with Dr. Maathai at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York.


MAATHAI: And I want to reach the part where I'm beginning to go to school, and my brother -- I had two brothers ahead of me, and they're already going to school, as was expected, but I, perhaps as expected, was not going to school.

But my brother asked my mother, "why doesn't she go to school with us?" And my mother, bless her heart, says, "no good reason." And indeed, the next thing I know, I'm going to school.

"Wow! So, you can write, I said, my eyes widening. My cousin nodded. And then did something I thought was truly miraculous. He took an eraser out of his bag, and rubbed out what he had written. The writing simply disappeared. I had never seen an eraser before, and it seemed like magic. "Can you do that?" he asked me with more than a touch of pride. "No, I can't," I replied, thinking my cousin was some kind of a genius. When I finally learned to read and write, I never stopped, because I could read, I could write and I could rub."

FEMI OKE, CNN ANCHOR: In the book, you talk about being an educated young lady, an educated woman. This causes friction all the way through, from when you went to school to when you were trying to take a position at university. What was it about Kenyan society that they had troubles and issues with education and women?

MAATHAI: Well, I think from the very beginning, as I mentioned, my brothers were going to school. It was expected that boys can go to school, because they can become employed. But girls were expected to get married, produce children, and make -- take care of the family. And so, nobody expected women to really go to school. But if you do go to school, it was enough to just learn how to read and write.

Now, if you went farther -- at that time, to high school -- it was a big deal. You're in high school, you are too educated. And people started wondering, what would you become? What were you going to do with all this higher education?

But I didn't stop at high school. I went to college, and that was a little bit too much. And I got a bachelor. And then I got a master, and finally a Ph.D. And people didn't know what to do.

It has been very difficult for women to truly experience their full potential or try to experience their full potential, and to achieve what is perceived to be the preserve of men. So when you do, men are challenged, society does not support you, because they don't expect you to achieve that much, and you begin to appear like you have come from another planet. And so many times, they would say I'm a white woman in black skin, and that was really discouraging.

OKE: If you look back at the span of your life, do you feel that you were driven, or you were just reacting to the circumstances as the cards were dealt to you?

MAATHAI: They say that what we call luck is opportunity that meets preparedness. And I think that quite often, I was prepared when the opportunity came and I took advantage of it.

And in writing that story, I really wanted to encourage, especially the girl child, for her to learn that you don't have to be -- you don't have to have a strategic plan to know what you will do, to know what you will be 20 years from now, 30 years from now. But you can be prepared. You work hard, and so that every opportunity that comes you're ready for it, and you're ready to exploit it.

So I was ready when my mother said she can go to school. And I went to school with enthusiasm. And I did very well. And then my brother thought that, in fact, I might even do better and be able to stay in school. So he suggested, again with my mother and one of my cousins, who was already in a boarding school, that perhaps I should go to a boarding school. And they deliberated and decided to send me to a Catholic boarding school. And I think that really kind of put me on a -- on a path that was eventually going to see me in the United States of America.


SESAY: And we'll have much more of Femi's interview with Wangari Maathai after a break, including her thoughts on winning the Nobel Peace Prize.


MAATHAI: And we also realized that in being honored, we're being honored in the name of many, in the name of millions of people in this world who work for the environment, in the name of women of Africa, in the name of the whole people of Africa.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Making business news in Africa this week. The Nigerian court case against Pfizer continues. State and federal officials blame an experimental Pfizer drug for the 1996 death of 11 children during a meningitis outbreak in Kano State. They're suing the U.S. pharmaceutical giant for $8.5 billion. The company says the disease caused the deaths, and the drugs saved lives.

Zimbabwe's Central Bank governor promises bare store shelves will again be stocked with basic goods within three weeks. He's announced a series of measures to address the country's economic crisis. He says the Central Bank will introduce a new currency with fewer zeros by the end of the year, and will also provide cheap loans to manufacturers and hard currency payments to farmers. Many economists say the moves are unlikely to have much effect. Zimbabwe currently has the worst inflation rate in the world.


SESAY: Welcome back to INSIDE AFRICA.

Now, as a young girl, Wangari Maathai took an avid interest in farming. With her mother's guidance, she tended her own garden, and quickly became fascinated with plants and birds. She also became known for her unparalleled work ethic and tenacity. And that's where we pick up the discussion between Femi Oke and Dr. Maathai.


OKE: There's one story from when you were a girl, when you go harvesting, which I think really sums up your personality. So, you take the donkey and you go harvesting for the whole day. Then your mom is expecting you to bring back a basketful, but you bring back the donkey and a huge sack, and both you and the donkey collapse on the ground. I think that really sums you up -- stubborn, determined .

MAATHAI: Like a donkey.

OKE: Yes!

MAATHAI: I think that in many ways, that that was really my sense of commitment, wanting to help my mother, and wanting to do what girls did. And I think that also endeared me a lot to the people in the village.

And I'm told now, much later when I was older, I was told that that personality that I demonstrated -- my willingness to work for my mother, despite the fact that people thought that I was very learned, the willingness to stay on the ground, the willingness to associate with the people in the village and to do what other girls were doing, even though they were not going to school, really helped a lot of parents to send their girls to school. Because they could see that you can be learned and still be very useful to your parents, that you don't -- that you don't come home and then sit around and read books and not be useful, and do what you're expected to do.

And so indeed, I was setting an example for other women, for other girl children. And so if I did well, I was paving the way for the other girls. And in fact, in the course of my life, when I really tried (ph) and I'm being humiliated and I'm being persecuted, I'm conscious that it's not me alone who is being persecuted. Every woman is being persecuted. Every woman is being challenged. And so, if I succeed, I succeed not only for me, but for all women.

OKE: The book is almost a self-help book for any feisty young woman who wants to create some mayhem. There were many people in your life who tried to obstruct you. Jobs were offered and taken away. You had troubles with the legal system. You had troubles with the administration in Kenya. But you're actually quite kind to these people.

MAATHAI: What I think -- when you have succeeded, you really don't have time to be angry, vengeful, vindictive. These are adjectives that should - - that usually apply to people who are failed and they're blaming other people for their failures. But when people challenge you and you succeed, then you see that they in a way helped you. They challenged you. And the good thing is, you didn't give in to their challenge. You rose up to their challenge. So you can afford to say, you put up this block for me and I jumped it.

OKE: Which is probably the best revenge, isn't it? I'm sure when you were collecting your Nobel Peace Prize, you were thinking "A-ha, take that!"

MAATHAI: Well, I actually didn't think about it. You'll be amazed sometimes, actually, when you get to these positions, you're so humbled by the fact that I know that there are many people out there who can be Nobel laureates, who have done great things, even greater things.

But in this particular point, the Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to shift, to make a historic shift and to focus on the environment. And I just happened to have been there, having been working for the environment for over 30 years. And I had been on many occasions through those challenges trying to make the linkage between governance, sustainable management of resources and peaceful coexistence.

So we're really humbled by those who had seen our work, who had followed our work, who had studied our work and who made it possible for us to be honored. And we also realize that in being honored, we're being honored in the name of many, in the name of millions of people in this world who work for the environment. In the name of women of Africa. In the name of the whole people of Africa.

I'm very sure that the committee was very conscious that they were honoring a woman from Africa, and in doing so they were honoring Africa. They were encouraging Africa. They were giving a statement to Africa. And I've heard that they were telling us in Africa is that you have the resources; if you would only manage yourselves better, if you'd only manage your resources more sustainable, if you would only invest in a peace instead of silly wars, where you're stopping your children from going to school and instead you're giving them guns. If you would only respect human rights and the rule of law. If you'd only become more inclusive and not be lost in unnecessary wars between tribes, you have the potential to be a great continent.


SESAY: Dr. Maathai continues to raise awareness about the environment and women's rights through her Greenbelt Movement. The organization has planted 20 million trees since 1977. She's also the goodwill ambassador for the Congo basin forest ecosystem. She said the world's forests are essential for controlling climate change and must be protected.

Coming up, an Italian business venture bears fruit for Africans on two continents.



SESAY: In Africa's headlines this week: A passenger plane crashed into a heavily populated area of Kinshasa, killing at least 30 people. Congolese authorities say as many as eight people on the ground were killed. The Russian-made Antonov 26 had just taken off from Kinshasa International Airport when the crew reported problems.

The South African government is vowing to improve mine safety after an accident stranded more than 3,000 miners underground near Johannesburg. A pressurized pipe burst, seriously damaging an elevator. It took rescue workers several hours to get the miners out using a smaller cage in another shaft.


SESAY: Welcome back to INSIDE AFRICA. A sweet deal is making life a bit richer for some Ghanaian immigrants in Italy and their families back home. With the help of two Italian banks, the Ghana Coop is profiting from pineapples. Jennifer Eccleston has the story.


JENNIFER ECCLESTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In this Modena warehouse, Thomas McCarthy surveys his pineapples, imported from his native Ghana by his Italian company, Ghana Coop. Fifty tons arrive each week for sale at local stores. They're the literal fruit of his labor, and a product that's improving the lives of people across two countries.

THOMAS MCCARTHY, PRESIDENT OF GHANA COOP: I have a duty to try and help those who are in difficult (inaudible). I'm very so happy that I'm in a condition to do it.

ECCLESTON: Like immigrants worldwide, Thomas sent cash supplements to relatives back home, but the trained accountant who worked odd jobs in Italy, wished to develop a sustainable assistance program, a stable income not just for his relatives, but for his entire homeland.

MCCARTHY: If we contribute to the economy of the host country, then we can also be agents for the development of our country or for our region.

ECCLESTON: With the encouragement of local entrepreneurs and migrant groups, Thomas McCarthy became an agent of development in 2005, when this Modena bank financed his business plan to develop a pineapple farm in an impoverished village in southern Ghana.

It was a gamble, says the bank manager.

DOMENICO MINARINI, EMIL BANK MANAGER (through translator): We hope to make a return on our investment some day, but for now, it's more of an ethical choice.

ECCLESTON: An ethical investment with immediate social returns. Ghana Coop modernized the village's fallow farmland and brought electricity to its roads and its school. By partnering with one of Ghana's leading fair trade or socially responsible exporters, it also guaranteed a healthy work environment and a steady income to the village's 600 residents. Village life forever altered.

In Modena, too, Thomas McCarthy's passion has encouraged change.

MCCARTHY: Most of them, migrants living in Italy, are considered to be something like laborers, maybe a population without any qualification, without any profession, which is absolutely very, very wrong.

"The immigration debate is sometimes overwhelmed by the negative. They're tied to laziness and criminal behavior. Thomas proves that they can earn their money and reinvest it in the community," says city official Alberto Caldana.

MCCARTHY: I want to do something for our motherland.

ECCLESTON: A migrant with a mission, giving back to an adopted community that gave him so much, and to a homeland that needs so much more.

Jennifer Eccleston, CNN, Modena, Italy.


SESAY: There's more to come on INSIDE AFRICA. We'll be right back.


SESAY: Welcome back to INSIDE AFRICA. We've received a lot of your feedback recently regarding the crisis in Zimbabwe.

Aghongaisede from Nigeria writes: "I think the international community blames the government in power, and that is completely wrong, because the sanctions in place right now aren't affecting the government, they're hurting the poor population, which have not got anything to do with the problems inside the country."

Matthew identifies himself as a Zimbabwean living in exile. He writes: "I shed tears watching the unspeakable man-made catastrophe that has led to thousands dying of curable diseases or political violence and millions starving to death. How many more years should we, the Zimbabwean people, suffer before the United Nations intervenes?"

Well, if you'd like to share your own views with us, just send us a note to

Two I-reporters put Nigeria in the spotlight this week. Our first photo comes to us from Chris Adigua (ph) in Abuja. He photographed a peaceful march through the capital city marking the country's 47th anniversary.

I-reporter Livingston Cheke (ph) sends us a photo of the same event. Livingston says the demonstrators, numbering in the hundreds, declared their country a good land, but called for steps to fight corruption.

Well, if you see news happening, you can send us your own images. Just go to and click on the "I report" section. It's as simple as that.

Thank you for watching. There's much more to come next week. So please, let INSIDE AFRICA be your window to the continent. Take care now.