Friday, December 10, 2004

MJ Interviews Dr.Maathai - Crisis of post-colonial Africa

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi


(Continuous to Previous Post)

Now, when we came to get independence — and this is very important, because I think the problems that Africa has suffered, certainly this country, are connected to the mis-representation of that Mau Mau movement. So when we came to get independence, my own personal belief — which many people would probably discount — is that the real fighters, the real nationalists, the people who really cared for this country and who would have sacrificed everything for this country, and who did sacrifice everything in this country, some were maimed, many of whom died in detention, some never came home, and those who were left were maimed, those people were never given an opportunity to participate in the post-colonial administration.

Q: So tell us the truth about the Mau Mau movement.

A: The truth of the Mau Mau movement was that it was a legitimate struggle of a people who had recognised the fact that their land and their freedom had been taken away, that they had become subjugated, oppressed and exploited. And that they needed to re-occupy their land, get their land back and to get their freedom back. Now, unfortunately, many of them were not really educated, and many of them perhaps did not have adequate leadership to understand the forces that they were fighting against, both locally, in terms of their own people and to understand how far their own people had been indoctrinated. They did not anticipate that their own people would fight against them. And that the fight would eventually become not a fight between them and the British, but a fight among themselves. Eventually it became an internal conflict of a community against itself. And those who were fighting the Mau Mau movement became co-opted. They fought a battle, they fought their own people, they killed their own people, but they believed that they were doing that because their own people were evil, they were cruel. And the British were a good people, and they were the people who are doing the right thing.

Now, when we came to get independence — and this is very important, because I think the problems that Africa has suffered, certainly this country, are connected to the mis-representation of that Mau Mau movement. So when we came to get independence, my own personal belief — which many people would probably discount — is that the real fighters, the real nationalists, the people who really cared for this country and who would have sacrificed everything for this country, and who did sacrifice everything in this country, some were maimed, many of whom died in detention, some never came home, and those who were left were maimed, those people were never given an opportunity to participate in the post-colonial administration.

It was those who fought alongside the British who became co-opted, to them power was handed over. And even to this day, we have never acknowledged or recognised the struggle of those who were truly the nationalists. And that may explain the problem that we have had. That we ended up as people who have been greedy, who have been selfish, who have not been committed to their people, who have only been interested in acquiring worth, having power and enjoying the privileges that power brings. In many ways, we changed guard. We simply removed the British, we replaced the white administrators with black administrators who had the same values and who continued to exploit their fellow Africans, the same way the British were. And that to me has been the dilemma of emancipation in this country.

Q: So you have just described neocolonisation.

A: Precisely.

Q: To what extent do you blame Jomo Kenyatta?

A: I would say this, that probably Kenyatta became a pragmatist who saw an opportunity... Remember Kenyatta lived away from this country for a long time. When he came, he came to provide leadership to a struggle that had already been started, had been nurtured for many years, but they accepted him because he was educated, exposed (to the world). He was arrested pretty early, in 1952 and the struggle went on. The emergency was never lifted until 1960. So all the time people were suffering, he himself was in jail. There was a book recently published here, called Kenyatta’s Jailer. It was written by a district commissioner who spent some time with Kenyatta in jail, and in that book it appears that the British worked on Kenyatta, worked with Kenyatta and convinced Kenyatta that they could make him the Prime Minister, or at least he could inherit power, but that he had to acquit them. So maybe, it’s not surprising that when Kenyatta became (leader of free Kenya), even though he himself had been part and parcel of the Mau Mau movement, at least we are led to believe by those who worked with him, he himself denounced the Mau Mau and never acknowledged that he himself was a part of the movement.

Q: That sounds like betrayal.

A: Ya. And, therefore, when he became the President, he did support them (the freedom fighters), he did give land to the poor, he did settle many of them, but he never acknowledged the real leaders.

Q: So do you think that the real crisis of post-colonial Africa — you’ve just described one aspect, the second aspect of it would be that those who were the fathers of the freedom struggle after they got power, one, fell into the trap of the Commonwealth and its lure, but second, they also confused themselves with the nation? That they thought they had to be in power for the rest of their lives?

A: I am not sure why they thought they had to be in power for the rest of their lives.

Q: Because of the lure of power. Power is a comfortable thing.

A: Ya, but some of them like Kenyatta had suffered so much in prison, had been in Britain for many years, had travelled to China. You could have thought he had seen the mighty and he had experienced life in a way that many others had not, and therefore would not have the urge to stay in power for as long as he lived. We know he died in office. But I have always felt that because the real nationalists were not actually given an opportunity to take over, that those who did, could not have behaved any differently.

Q: Two questions: One, this is a syndrome. Would you say that Julius Nyerere (of neighbouring Tanzania) also outlived his utility?

A: I think that Julius Nyerere is one of the exceptions, because, for one, unlike his contemporaries, he decided not to accumulate... And we also saw that he had a vision, he decided to try to unite his people, he decided to give them, for example, one language. He decided to detach them from ownership and tried to introduce what he called African socialism. Unfortunately — from my perspective — he was not fully supported by his people, as I think he was very far ahead of his people. And also the western powers translated his African socialism into communism. And because they were fighting communism in all its shapes they decided not to support him.

Q: But, tell me, why is good governance impossible in Africa? Or seems to be impossible?

A: Good governance is not impossible in Africa.

Q: Seems to be...

A: Good governance seems to be impossible. What is needed in Africa is — and I think African leaders are trying at the moment to really accept that you cannot develop in a very oppressive system that denies the people the capacity to be creative and to be innovative and to use that creativity and innovativeness in an environment where they have the freedom and the support.

Q: But, Ma’am, can we be a little more blunt and just say that it is the greed of wealth and corruption which is destroying this country? And the elites, they are just becoming leeches.

A: Ya. And I think that what needs to emerge from Africa is a new breed. I don’t know, we were hoping, of course we were hoping that our own generation would be the one that would not be greedy, because we saw our fathers being sacrificed by the British, because it was our fathers who fought during Mau Mau. And so we should have been more democratic, more responsive to our people. More protective of our people. We have not. I can see it in Parliament, I can see it even in the government, that is why we are fighting corruption, and we are constantly saying we are fighting it, because we know it is there and it is not leaving as quickly as it should. But in every country what you really need is a good leader. And we are hoping that one of these days I guess, a new leadership will emerge in Africa. We saw it emerge in South Africa. I think (Thabo) Mbeki is trying very hard. I think our President is trying very hard, despite certain constraints of health and age. I think we are very very unlucky that the President had an accident almost at the time that we were about to go to elections. And because we were so desperate about changing the system, we went through it, and we put him into this position. He has had to take care of his health and at the same time, take care of the country. Also, it’s unfortunate, and maybe because of that, some people did not honour what was originally our agreement, as partners in the new political dispensation that we have concocted.

Q: Or is it simply that the system, after years of corruption, the system is too powerful for you to do anything about?

A: I don’t think that the system is powerful. Let me tell you, if today we had a leadership that decides that they will do the right things, that would be done. Leadership is very very important.

Q: But you are part of the leadership now, you can’t keep blaming others.

A: I am part of the leadership, but I can also say that there are circles in the leadership and within those circles you can make certain decisions. But there are certain decisions that you cannot make. But all I can say is that definitely we will not go anywhere until we have leaders who are truly committed.

Q: What was the reason for the long years of Arap Moi? I mean how did he survive?

A: Moi survived partly because... You have to become corrupt, and once you are corrupt and you have people who are willing to be corrupt. After all, when you look at it, as I just said, at independence the people who were co-opted were not the nationalists. They were people who were willing to work with the British to keep the British here. Fortunately, because of the global processes that were going on at that time, colonialism was crumbling anyway, and it was bound to come to an end. But what the British succeeded in doing is putting in place their own people, the collaborators. Now those collaborators worked with Kenyatta, the same collaborators worked with Moi. So you are dealing with the same group. It is only now that a lot of those are getting out. And unfortunately, those who have taken over, have almost been taught that when you are in position what you do is you take advantage of that position. You enrich yourself.

Q: You won freedom through struggle, how are you going to preserve it?

A: You mean this particular government. This particular government is trying very hard of course.

Q: But don’t you feel disillusionment has already set in?

A: Well, let me say this, that people must also be patient. People (must) accept history, where we have come from. We didn’t cut any heads (laughs). We moved on.

Q: Tell us something about this specific environmental Green Belt Movement that you started and which has now acquired such international repute.

A: The movement that I started was first of all to encourage the ordinary people to understand that the environment is something that is extremely important in their lives and to understand what that environment is. And to understand that a large part of that environment are natural resources: it’s the soil in which they grow their food, it’s the water which they drink, it’s the forest which gives them rain and gives them water. It’s themselves, because they are a great natural resource.

Q: So your struggle was never against knowledge, because people who live on the soil know this. Your struggle was against the corruption of elites which was scavenging the country in order to become rich.

A: Precisely, and I knew it was not easy to fight it, because alone you cannot do it. I knew I had to solicit the support of the people. I started by just addressing their own problems. In fact, in my seminars I would ask, what are the problems you face. They would tell me their problems and then we would analyse them, and quite often those problems would be in four categories. A large number of those problems were caused by bad governance. Second, a large number were caused by environmental degradation. And then you had this societal disintegration, due to the many years of colonialism, domination, Christianisation and all that. And then usually there would be other problems that could be political. Not strictly governance, but they are political problems. But to a very large extent many of the problems were on environmental degradation and bad governance. So, in the next step I’d say, ‘Since you identify, since you see many of our problems have to do with governance and environmental degradation, what can we do? What is our solution?’ And quite often they would hesitate, because they would always say that the government has to do this, the government has to do this...

Q: Tell me who recommended you for the Nobel Prize?

A: I have no idea. I have absolutely no idea. Nobody has come to me, nobody interviewed me. I really don’t know. But of course many people come and they look at our work and they study our work and so anybody could have done. But I wanted to say that quite often I would use a symbol of a bus, because moving by bus in this country is very common. And here in Nairobi there is one place where all the buses from the countryside come. And I’d use the symbol of the bus and I’d say that if you are in Nairobi and if you want to go to Mombasa and you go to the bus stop and there is one big bus stop where all the buses meet, if you want to go to Mombasa what could happen to you or what could possibly be wrong with you that you take a bus that goes in the opposite direction. We would struggle, and usually there would be not more than five reasons why you take the wrong bus. We would struggle, there would be just ordinary arguments, and we would end up agreeing that if you go to the bus station and you don’t ask, you are likely to get into the wrong bus. So this whole process is about asking questions. Why is this situation like this?

Q: Very very interesting, and very instructive... So it was also an educational process.

A: Yes, it was an education. You must ask and if you ask you could be misread and we do get misread. That’s what we are talking about. We are taught we are not okay, we are not the right colour, we are not the right shape. And we accept. So we get into the wrong bus and we move in the wrong direction (laughs).

Q: You almost got into the wrong bus (in your marriage)! You know, as a complete coincidence your husband has become almost as famous as you.

A: (Laughs) He is in the wrong bus.

Q: You have absolutely fascinated women who have heard of you, who want to know more about the completely candid, honest, self-empowered position you took about your marriage. Would you like to say something about that?

A: Well, actually it is very very interesting. And it is always very difficult to tell these stories, because these are emotional stories, these are personal stories. And it never goes away and it is part of your life. But I remember the day, not the day we got divorced, but the day he (my husband) left home. The day he left I was teaching in the University of Nairobi. And you know in University of Nairobi we get houses as part of the package. So I had this beautiful house that we were living in. We had been living in and out of the University of Nairobi houses, because quite often, whenever we had differences — and when I look back the differences had nothing to do with housing, nothing to do with my position in the university, just had to do with the fact that we were moving, we were gliding, these two stones were gliding nicely. And he used to say sometimes, that I don’t give him sufficient space or respect, because, unfortunately, I was the one who was a doctor. A PhD. A Masters, a scientist, a professor in the University of Nairobi. Things that really didn’t matter to me. And anybody who knows me now, understands that these things are just decorations, for goodness’ sake! They don’t change who I am. But I think that men have a problem dealing with a person who has decorations more than they do.

Q: Their ego.

A: Yes, their ego. They can accept another man who has more decorations than they do, but they find it difficult to accept another woman and especially their wives. Now I didn’t know that, I was too young. Now I am wiser, now I’d be hiding (laughs) my titles, and deciding, don’t let anybody call me Dr Wangari. As if it would have made any difference! But as I say we were victims of our own times, and victims of our own youth, and victims of our own inexperience, because we should have been old enough or wise enough to say it doesn’t matter, but it mattered: what people thought, what people said, what we think people thought. And so one day I came home and he was gone. I said, ‘Where is he?’ You know sometimes you have a picture (on the wall at home), and you don’t know where that picture came from... So he comes and packs all his things and he takes that picture. You come home and you are used to seeing that picture and you ask, ‘Where is that picture?’ And you are told, so and so took it. ‘What?’ ‘Yes, and he also took that, and he took that chair and he took that radio and he packed all of them in the car and he left.’ And I sat down and said, ‘What? What did he say?’ ‘Nothing, he just packed and left.’ While he was packing he dropped a lot of paper and rubbish and whatever falls when you are packing. I went into the kitchen, I took a broom, and I swept. And I said, that’s the end of that. And I think that process, that action of sweeping and removing all the dust and whatever was on the ground gave me a feeling of... There’s nothing I can do, if he decided to go, it’s okay. Now the next thing is, after sweeping, what (do) I do. And that was it, that was that.

Q: Did you hear from him after you were declared a Nobel Prize winner?

A: (Laughs) Oh, yes! Well, he wrote, after many years. He discovered that there are more things to life than fighting.

Q: On that happy note, thank you very very much. It is a privilege to have spoken to you.

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