Thursday, December 09, 2004

M.J.Akbar's Interview with the Nobel Laureate Dr.Wangari Maathai

Edited & Brought to you by ilaxi


Nobel Laureate

On December 10, Kenya's Dr. Wangari Maathai will become the First Black African Woman to be Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.Dr. Maathai has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. Mrs Maathai beat a record 194 nominations. Mrs Maathai is the second woman in a row to be awarded the peace prize, which last year went to Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi for her work for the rights of women and children in Iran. The award, which includes 10 million Swedish kronor ($1.3m) is awarded in Oslo on 10 December each year. 

Dr.Maathai:"In many churches, when you go you will find Black Jesus.You find a figure that is painted black or the crucifix that is definitely black. But there is still a dominance of trying to present Jesus the way Michelangelo saw him."

Interview:M.J.Akbar speaks to Dr.Wangari Maathai

Q: Professor Maathai, it is a privilege to meet you, a woman who represents an idea and a cause of the underprivileged world. Would you tell us how exactly you began this movement? And what were the impulses which persuaded you into this direction? A woman of your energy, your ability could have taken any path.

A: When I finished my education in America at the beginning of 1966, I came back to Kenya...

Q: What was your discipline?

A: Biological sciences.

Q: And which university?

A: For college I had gone to Mount St. Scholastica College which is a small college in Atchison, near Kansas City. And then I went to the University of Pittsburgh and I did a Masters in Biological Sciences. And then I decided to come back home.

Q: This is two years after your freedom: how many Kenyan women were studying abroad at that time?

A: Well, there were a few at that time but not that many. In 1960, a few politicians were busy preparing for independence, they knew it was coming. I know that locally a few politicians, like Tom Mboya, were in touch with other politicians outside. Even Nehru was involved in this process of sending (Kenyan) students abroad. So some students were going to India. About 300 of us (went) to the USA. This was 1960. I had just finished high school and I was chosen to be one of the students to go to the United States.

Q: So, in a sense, the nation was preparing for independence, for freedom by creating an educated class which could claim the inheritance...

A: That’s right. And this was largely politicians who were very young, many of them in their late 20s or early 30s. Looking back, they were very young people, and so were we. But when you are young, somehow you don’t quite realise how young you are.

Q: That’s a very good point.

A: (Laughs) I remember the politicians telling us, ‘We want you to go to America, we want you to come back and contribute towards the development of our country. We are going to be independent very soon.’ So it stuck in my mind really, that I was going to America and I was to come back and contribute towards the development of my country. When I came back in 1966, yes, there was a lot of enthusiasm, there was a lot of hope, there was happiness in the air then because it was only two years (since freedom). It was wonderful when I came back. One of the things I remember is that the voice of Kenyatta was being played constantly on television urging... Radio, there was no television at that time. Yes, there was television, but it was not common! So I was hearing the voice of Kenyatta on the radio and for me it was very exciting because when I left (for the USA), Kenyatta was in prison. And (when I came back) he is not only out, he is the President of the new country. So I was very excited, and then I joined the University of Nairobi and shortly after I joined the Kenya Association of University Women. Now, around 1964 the women of this country had decided to come together and to join in a common forum because hitherto they had operated along racial lines.

Q: Please, explain. We really need to know for we have this notion that racism, discrimination, only took place in South Africa and everywhere else was all right.

A: It wasn’t. There were certain countries where the British were ready to settle in, and this was one of the countries. Partly because (Kenya) is beautiful and the climate is perfect. And so they had created what was for all practical purposes apartheid. But at that time, as young people, you don’t quite appreciate, because you don’t see the obstructions...

Q: How did the British divide Kenyans?

A: In this country, people were divided in the sense that... First of all, in the education system, Africans went to their own schools, Asians went to their own schools and Europeans went to their own schools.

Q: There was educational apartheid.

A: Yes, there was educational apartheid. We also lived in different sections, there were African sections, Asian sections, European sections.

Q: So Nairobi was divided...

A: It was very, very divided. Even now if you travel around Nairobi, you can go to areas where you can see houses which are typically Asian. This is where the Asians lived and you can go to areas where Africans lived and areas where Europeans lived. And of course, economically Europeans were the most privileged, Asians were the second and Africans were the most deprived, often living in very crowded estates. And the other thing is, even professions operated along racial lines. Even hospitals, there were hospitals for Asians, hospitals for Africans and hospitals for Europeans. Everything was operated along racial lines. Even trains, there were first class, second class and third class. If you were European, you stepped into the first class cabins, if you were Asian you went into the second class cabins and if you were an African, you went into the third class cabins. It didn’t matter who you were, how rich you were, whether you could afford, that was not the matter. The issue was colour and it was very clear.

Q: And this happened till the last day?

A: Yeah, that was the way it was till 1963 (12 December).

Q: 1963, when Alec Douglas-Home...

A: Handed over the new Constitution to President Kenyatta. And you get

used to that system, you almost get trained to accept your position, to accept

your place, and so when you go to the railway station, you know where your cabins are.

Q: Know your place.

A: You know your place. And you dare not go to areas you are not supposed to because you will definitely be thrown out. It is very interesting because at that point many people, once they accepted, it was almost like they wanted to keep everybody where they belonged. So there is absolutely no reason why I should be in the first class. If there’s any African who can afford the first class, he should be here, that feeling was not even there. So people in the first class have no feeling of guilt.

Q: So it is a willing suspension of independence, in which we become the participating class.

A: You actually endorse it and it almost feels like this is the way things should be.

Q: And this is the ‘civilised’ way to live.

A: Absolutely.

Q: What was the nature of the freedom struggle? In India we had a largely non-violent freedom struggle, what was the nature here?

A: The struggle here became violent. The struggle here was actually started as soon as Kenya was declared a colony. Kenya was declared a colony in 1920 and as early as 1922 the first resistance was organised and a hero of that resistance was a man called Harry Thuku. What they did was they were resisting the colonisation of Kenya and the displacement of many of the local people from their lands, forcibly moved from their land to other parts of the country, often drier, or maybe just as good, but they were away from their families and away from the people they knew, taken to other communities. As you know, Kenya has many communities. We have about 42 communities and we had never lived together before. Every community was living in its own territory. Now we were being taken and dumped in the midst of another community that spoke differently and even resisted your being there, but of course because the administration was in control it didn’t matter.

Q: This then was the creation of British farmlands, which were given to British farmers.

A: Ya. The so-called White Highlands.

Q: And do they still exist?

A: They are not called White Highlands any more. What happened during independence was that some people formed some cooperatives and bought some of these lands. But we also evolved a new class of Africans who had the money, who could borrow from the bank, who actually bought many of these lands. So they became large (land)owners, which is still a problem now because it is in a way sometimes difficult, because these lands — remember, people were displaced from them and they later came over. And then after independence, Africans or Asians or other Europeans, or the old Europeans, they owned them. They were the new elite. The new rich elite who could buy these lands, who could own these huge tracts of land.

Q: And they were never given back? Never re-distributed to the original owners?

A: Some of that land was actually given back. Some of it was bought by what are called cooperatives where the government would encourage people to come together to form these huge cooperatives. They would get loans from the government and they would buy the land and subdivide that land into small plots.

Q: But that experiment failed, the cooperative experiment became a mess.

A: It became a mess, but to a very large extent those lands are still there. People are still owning those pieces of land. But what happened is that there were lots and lots of people, literally thousands of people who were never settled. They were never allowed to go back to their lands because those lands were privatised by the new-rich.

Q: The old colonists have always been very pleased with Kenya since you never violently re-distributed the land, that you found an accommodation with the White Highlands, with the white farmers and so on.

A: Yes, yes, we never did.

Q: But tell me, as an activist, as somebody who believes, do you have some sympathy with what (Robert) Mugabe is doing (in Zimbabwe)?

A: I think even before I say what Mugabe is doing, let me say that it is important to remember that when Kenyans tried to resist in 1922, and I must also say that there were many individuals and communities who resisted as the British tried to occupy different parts of the country. As the British spread throughout the country, there was resistance wherever they went. But the most violent resistance was actually organised by the young people who came from the Second World War.

Q: That’s very important, very interesting. The experience in the war radicalised the soldiers. Just as in Britain the soldiers were radicalised and they destroyed Winston Churchill and defeated him (in a general election).

A: Right. Precisely. When these soldiers came back home, they realised they had been fighting in a war that was not their war. They were dying in a war that was not their war. And when they came back, they were not even recognised. So they decided that: We are dying in vain, we are fighting for a king who is not our king, we are fighting for a government that is not our government. So especially from central Kenya which was one of the areas which the British had occupied much of the land, because central Kenya is the highlands.

Q: And beautiful, and comes as near to Britain — with good weather!

A: (Laughs) Yes, beautiful. So they decided to mobilise communities, mobilise themselves. Unfortunately, when they started to mobilise, they became violent. They started to force people to accept their mobilisation. Part of what those who were mobilising were saying, is that it’s very important for us to embrace our culture. You have to truly discover yourself, you have to empower yourself. Now in doing that you have to be very careful because sometimes if your mind is so indoctrinated that you do not accept the way you are, and that you would rather be the way you have been changed, then you fight anybody who is trying to take you to what you perceive as primitive, backward and a part that you would rather forget, because it reflects the bad part of you. So you would rather forget that.

Q: Prof. Maathai, I remember that the term terrorist was used very often by the British to describe the Kenyan struggle.

A: Yes, as far as the British were concerned, they were terrorists. They were disrupting peace, they were destabilising the British government.

Q: And they created this image, particularly from Kenya, of this lurid, ferocious, tribal warrior who was a primitive barbarian challenging modern life and modern civilisation.

A: And trying to return their people into the primitive dark ages. And that’s the image that the Mau Mau movement was given. It became demonised. And people who were co-opted by the British, were quite often religious leaders...

Q: Including Kenyans?

A: Ya, these were Kenyans. But they were religious leaders. But remember, this is religion which is western. So we are talking about the Presbyterian Church of East Africa whose headquarters is in Edinburgh, we are talking about Catholic Church whose headquarters is in Rome. And these people decided, or they were persuaded to believe that the Mau Maus were wrong and that the British were right. That indeed it was not time yet for the Africans to ask for independence. That they still had a lot to learn from the British.

Q: Are you a believer? Are you a Christian?

A: Yes I am a Christian.

Q: How do you feel about the use of religion in support of colonisation?

A: Well, of course, it can be used, it was used, because people became indoctrinated to believe that if you are Christian you have to accept that your way of life as a traditional person is primitive, is paramystic, is demonic. You have to abandon it, you have to condemn it, you should have nothing to do with it. And that meant everything about what you have, what your parents knew, what your grandparents knew. You had to be born again, as it was said.

Q: I find one aspect of this whole situation very interesting. I went to an American Methodist boarding school and I remember very clearly the image of Jesus on the walls was of a man with blond hair, blue eyes, fair skin.

A: (Laughs) Very Scandinavian.

Q: Yes, very Scandinavian or straight out of Texas. I don’t know if you have been to Bethlehem, or if you have gone to St. Petersburg which has probably the best collection of icons, everywhere Jesus and his family, Joseph and the Virgin Mary, all of them are dark people.

A: They were Middle Easterners.

Q: They must have been, they were from Egypt and Palestine. And I wonder, purely incidentally, if any effort is being made (in Kenya) to tell the truth that Jesus was a dark person.

A: Well I think that it will take a new awareness in religion, and I know that it is coming. It is definitely coming. You can see it coming in the churches, especially in the Catholic Church. In many churches, when you go you will find Black Jesus.

Q: You do?

A: You find a figure that is painted black or the crucifix that is definitely black. But there is still a dominance of trying to present Jesus the way Michelangelo saw him.

Q: Or the Spanish artists...

A: These were the artists’ impressions. Remember, even the southern Europeans were kind of fascinated by the northern blue eyes, blond hair. Scandinavians (Laughs)... So when Michelangelo was drawing, when he was expressing his impression of God he was imagining how the seraphim looked like, he thought they must look like these Scandinavians, because they were the most beautiful people they could think of. Now you can imagine, the little Italians (Laughs)... So these are the images that are brought to us. I remember, when I was going to school, especially to primary school, the school was run by Italian nuns. Beautiful, wonderful, kind Italian women who influenced me a lot. But they were very eager to educate us not to wear the beads (the tribal necklace) which are very common in Africa, but instead to wear the medals (the rosaries), the medallions that hang from your neck. They would indoctrinate you to believe that these are holy. But what you were wearing as an African, that is primitive, that’s demonic, that’s paramystic. As a child, of course, you don’t know, so you accept it. Then they show you these holy pictures of Mary, of Joseph, impressions that when you grow up you realise are the impressions of the Sistine Chapel. Of what Michelangelo was drawing, his artistic impression; that it has nothing to do with God, nothing to do with Heaven, but a lot to do with the imaginations of a human being who lived and who was a great artist. Now until you know that, you can have a very distorted idea of what heaven is like, of what other people are like. And what you are like. And you like to see yourself in a negative way because you don’t look like them. You look very far from heaven. Like you have to be transformed before you get there.

Q: I wonder whether it would be a shattering experience if you went to the Bible belt of America and told Americans that Jesus was black.

A: Well, I am sure that they would find it very difficult to accept that. They also say that it doesn’t matter, since He is God, probably doesn’t have any colour. That misrepresentation of the Mau Mau movement still continues.

Q: Can you explain how?

A: It continued because the Mau Mau struggle became presented as a primitive, barbaric, unjustified struggle.

Q: They used to frighten children by saying the Mau Mau is coming.

A: Precisely. They were just presented as barbaric people who loved to kill human beings, who ate human beings...

-More info on Mau Mau Movement follows in next Post

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