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Interview with Wangari Maathai, Environmental Activist and Nobel Laureate

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UPDATE 9/26/11 -- Editor's Note: Wangari Maathai died on Sunday, September 25, 2011, at age 71, after a long battle with cancer. According to the Associated Press, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said her death "strikes at the core of our nation's heart."

The Nobel Laureate talks about planting 40 million trees (including one with Barack Obama), her global perspective, and her philosophy of life

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Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya and was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. In 1976, she introduced the idea of planting trees with communities. She established The Green Belt Movement (GBM) in Kenya in 1977, initially to address deforestation. Later the issues of community empowerment and environmental conservation were incorporated. To date, over 40 million trees have been planted, primarily by women, across Kenya. She and the GBM received the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In January 2006, Professor Maathai, along with sister Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Maguire founded the Nobel Women's Initiative. She has written several books, including The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, her memoir Unbowed, and her important new book, The Challenge for Africa .


Marianne Schnall: There are so many issues affecting Africa and our world, what was your pathway to the environment becoming your cause?

Wangari Maathai: Well, I think my understanding was very basic because I started with ordinary women from the countryside expressing their very basic needs for water, for food, for firewood, and for income, and then realizing that what the women were describing was an environment -- they were coming from an environment that was failing to sustain them. And so looking at that environment and especially because I had grown up in the same environment, I realized that there are very serious activities such as deforestation, loss of the soil that was gradually destroying that environment and impoverishing them. And so that actually became my entry point. And I suggested that we plant trees and they agreed and we started, but as we did plant those trees, it almost became like a school for me to understand that what the women were describing were symptoms, and that it was necessary for us to go to the cause. And that cause became sometimes physical destruction of the environment, and then the question was by whom, and that led me into issues of irresponsible management of resources by government. So one thing just led to the other and eventually I got a much better understanding of how the environment is destroyed and how it could be restored.

MS: As the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, how do you see the connection between the environment and peace, in that region, and in the world?

WM: For me, as I say, as I got deeper and deeper into the issues, I came to realize that so often when we use the resources, first and foremost there is that degradation of the environment, as I was seeing in my own country. And I noticed that when resources degrade, there is less of them. And especially land, which is one natural resource that most people in the world want to access -- or resources such as water, which we all need. When these resources are degraded or polluted, then there are fewer of them for the rest of us, and then we start competing for them and eventually as we compete, there are those of us, who have the capacity, who have the ability to be the controllers, to decide who accesses them, how much they access, and eventually there is a conflict. Those who feel marginalized, those who feel excluded, eventually react in an effort to get their own justice, and we have conflict.

So it became very clear to me that whether it is at the local level in Kenya, where we had tribal clashes over land and water, or whether it is at the global level, where we are fighting over water, over oil, over minerals -- that a lot of the conflicts we have in the world are actually due to competition over resources. And that's how I saw that one way in which we can promote peace, is by promoting sustainable management of our resources, equitable distribution of these resources, and that the only way you can actually do that, is that then you have to have a political, economic system that facilitates that. And then you get into the issues of human rights, justice, economic justice, social justice, and good governance or democratic governance. That's how it ties up, and I was very happy when the Norwegian Nobel Committee saw what I was trying to do.

MS: The Green Belt Movement has now planted 30 million trees. What is the significance or importance of planting trees?

WM: Well, for me planting a tree is a very doable thing. It's not complicated, it doesn't require technology, it doesn't require much knowledge, but it can be a very important entry point into communities understanding how they destroy their own resources, but how they can also restore those resources, and not wait for their government or international agencies to come and help them. And you can educate people therefore to understand how they can preempt their own conflict. And how they need to not only protect their resources themselves, but also demand that their government, which is supposed to be custodians of these resources, should take care of them. So quite often when people hear about our work, they only think about the actual action of planting a tree. But a tree for us is a symbol, it's an entry point, and once you are into the communities then you help the communities to try and understand the linkages and to try to mobilize them for action.

MS: The Green Belt Movement seemed to particularly involve women. What was the connection between empowering women and the work of The Green Belt Movement?

WM: It was almost by coincidence -- well, it was not really a coincidence, it was almost by -- it had to be that way -- I'm trying to say, because first of all, this whole idea started in the national council of women, we were trying to prepare to go to Mexico in 1975, in a time when you will remember, when there was a global women's movement. And the very first United Nations Conference on Women was to take place in Mexico in 1975, and as we were preparing to join the rest of the women in Mexico, we organized around the umbrella of the National Council of Women of Kenya. So it was very natural for me to reach out to the women, and address the issues that they were raising. The second reason is, in that part of Africa, it's the women who actually are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who fetch water, so if there is no water, it is them who walk for days -- or for hours I should say -- looking for water. They are the ones who fetch firewood. They are the ones who produce food for their families. So it's easy for them to explain when the environment is degraded and to persuade them to take action, because they can see where it will impact them directly positively. And although trees take a long time to grow, fortunately within the tropics, trees grow relatively fast, so that in five to ten years, you already have trees that you can already use for fencing, for building.

For timber you may have to wait for 30 years -- but in the meantime, you get firewood, you get fodder, you get building materials, and if you get the branches, you already have firewood. So the tree is actually a very good way of addressing these issues. And women became very good partners. But we also learned that very quickly the men realized that planting trees, yes indeed, it is a very good way of improving the quality of the land, and the value of the land. So many of the men eventually joined in, and also the children joined in. Men, mostly because of the economic value of the land. So although we usually start with the women -- even today when we go to new areas, we start with women, but very quickly it becomes an activity that most people want to be involved in.

MS: I know you have been traveling around the US and around the world talking about the issue of climate change. What insights do you have on the state of the environment looking at it from a global perspective?

WM: Well, I think globally on the environment, we can say that we have great environmental awareness as compared to, for example, the seventies when the world started really serious global mobilization of environmental awareness with the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972. Since that time there has been a lot of awareness, not only among governments and experts, but also among ordinary citizens -- almost everybody now understands. And that is a great accomplishment that has been made. And as we know, most governments in the world now have a minister of environment, so at least politically you can say most governments have accepted the principle of taking care of the environment.

But I must say, especially in Africa, I haven't seen sufficient prioritization of the environment , mostly through cuts to the national budget, you can see that the government will spend more money in the ministry of defense rather than the ministry of the environment. And yet, a lot of, as we were just saying earlier, conflicts, are brought about by environmental degradation. So you would expect that the government would invest in the environment in the hope that we can preempt conflicts that will come as people fight over diminishing resources, especially water, and land. But they don't. So I still have a lot of apprehension about the level of commitment, political commitment, by governments, about the environment, especially in Africa.

MS: If you could have the ears of world leaders, what is the one message you would most want to tell them? We have made a lot of progress, but what more needs to be done?

WM: First of all, I just think that more resources need to be allocated to the environment. I was happy to hear, for example, President Elect Barack Obama say that he would like to commit the United States of America, in the same spirit that they had committed to go to the moon with President Kennedy, that he would like to see that kind of commitment so that the United States of America can move away from fossil fuels to cleaner sources of energy. And I know that if America did that, because of the power that America has on what other governments do in the world, I am sure it would help to make the shift that is needed to move away from sources of energy that continue to pollute the environment to cleaner sources of energy.

And that should be a requirement, for example, for African countries, many African countries that are supported by the developed world -- it is possible to demand that a good amount of resources is allocated to the protection of the environment. And especially now that we are talking about global warming, especially in Africa, the protection of the forests, and especially the Congo forest. As you know, I am the goodwill ambassador of the Congo forest, and we have established this fund which we call the Congo forestry fund, to try to help the governments in that region protect those forests so that we have standing forests. And I am really hoping that the world is gathered right now in Poznan and I am hoping that the capitals of the world will be sending the message that we must protect the forests and that standing forests must be part of the solution that we want to see in the world. That would probably be one of the important messages that I would really like to send to all the capitals of the world.

MS: Sometimes people look out at the world or they hear these scary stories about global warming and climate change and it feels so overwhelming, and often times it can make somebody just feel helpless to do anything about it. What can people do to get involved? What advice would you give to someone who wants to be a part of the change, but just doesn't know how they can make a difference?

WM: Well, if we had a lot of time I would give you a story of a hummingbird - I usually give the story of the hummingbird and say that this hummingbird -- well, I can't tell you it all but if you Google it you might get that story because I have told it so many times it is now in the Google [note: here is the link]. But it is essentially the story of a hummingbird that refuses to join the rest of the animals when a forest is burning and instead decides to go and bring water from the river, with its little beak, takes a drop of water every time and brings it and puts it on the fire. But the fire is so huge. But the moral of the story is that it doesn't matter how small the action is, if we all do the little we can, collectively we can make a difference.

And there are very many little things that we all can do. For example, I learned in America a long time ago, the three R's, the principle of three R's -- reuse, reduce, recycle. And as I say those words, there are so many things individually we can do to reduce -- we don't need to consume as much as we are consuming. Reduce. And by reusing, we can reuse a lot of things we just throw into the dumpsite. And reduce the production. The more we reuse, the more we can reduce. And in Kenya, one of the ways in which we do that is to promote the use of reusable bags instead of using plastic which is then thrown into the environment, especially the very thin plastic. The other thing that I learned from Japan was that you can also try not to waste, especially people who live in very highly industrialized worlds -- they are so wasteful. And we waste because there is plenty.

And this concept in Japan, by the way, is called "Mottainai" and it is a concept that is based in Buddhism and it used to encourage Japanese before they became so rich -- it used to encourage them to be grateful about what they get from their resource, from their world, from their environment -- to not waste resources, and to be grateful. And also to be respectful. Respect, be grateful, do not waste. And I was told as the Japanese children would eat rice, even if they left one grain on their plate they would be told by their parents, "Oh, what a mottainai! You finish your food!" And it's only one grain of rice. So, there is so much wasted of resources where we have a lot of it.

And let me give you a story -- recently I was in the Congo, and I was visiting a very commendable milling factory in the middle of the Congo forest. And that factory is supposed to be harvesting trees sustainably. That is why I had gone to visit them. And they did demonstrate to me how they take these huge, 200 year-old trees, and they actually mark the tree that they are going to harvest. And I was very impressed. But -- eventually when we go to the factory, I asked them, "How much of this tree do you use?" And they told me only 35% -- the rest is wasted! The rest is put on fire because they have nothing to do with it -- they say they don't know what to do with it, so they allow people to come and burn it into charcoal -- literally burning it, reducing it into ashes. That's waste. So when we say, please do not waste. Be respectful. And be grateful. You know, when I looked at that tree and realized that only 35% will be used, I just thought to myself -- what a mottainai! Wasting 65% of a tree that is 200 years old. Honest.

So there is a lot that we individually can do. In our homes, when we go shopping, as we travel, there is so much we can do. And even though we think that that particular action at an individual level may be very small, just imagine if it is repeated several million times. It will make a difference. So that hummingbird's actions may look very small, but it is very powerful if it is repeated many million times.

MS: As an activist yourself, and particularly as a woman, you have faced many obstacles -- what helped you overcome them? Where did you find your strength and your courage that has sustained you throughout your crusade over all these years?

WM: I think that I was very helped by the fact that as I was growing up and as I was doing my basic studies, I studied primary in Kenya, then I went to the United States of America, as you know I was in the East and the mid-East, and then I spent some time in Europe. And this was in the sixties and there was a lot of civilized activities, especially in the United States of America, and in Europe there was a lot of student movements, it was during the times of the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of challenges that the students were putting forward. And so the other thing, is that I am very much part of that movement, and the spirit of wanting to change things, and wanting to see fairness and justice. And I think when I went back to Kenya I was really full of enthusiasm. And fortunately for me the more I observed resistance, the more I was encouraged. Because it was almost like, well, they don't even understand what is happening in the rest of the world, and they are doing things that should have disappeared a long time ago, such as torture and violation of human rights, violation of women's rights, destruction of the environment. I just felt that these are things that really should not be done. But I know that had I not left my home, had I not gone to other parts of the world and seen some of the efforts that were being made in other societies, I would probably have felt discouraged and abandoned the crusade.

I also think that having studied biology really helped me a lot because I quickly understand how biological systems work, and how they fail, and the tragedy of when they fail, because we are dealing with life systems, and when we hear that a species has become extinct, or is threatened, you realize that this could mean that this species will disappear from the face of the earth forever! So that understanding really gives you energy to do something to save it.

MS: Whenever I have heard you speak, even with your challenging work, you always seem to have this sense of joyfulness and hopefulness. Many people look out at the world and feel very pessimistic with all the troubles that are facing our world? Are you optimistic and how do you stay optimistic?


WM: Yes. I think you have to stay optimistic. Sometimes of course you feel very discouraged, and especially as you grow older and you feel like oh, my god -- how long am I going to work on this issue before everybody understands it? You do sometimes feel very discouraged, but it's also very important to remain optimistic and to see the silver lining in everything you do. Because no matter how sometimes things look difficult, and look like there is no hope, there is always a small glimmering of silver lining that is in everything, and I always look for that, and hang on that, and before I know it, another day comes and is gone.

MS: Do you think that we are moving to a point now where we are starting to see ourselves from a global perspective, see ourselves as one family sharing one home on planet earth, rather than by nations? You're always visiting other countries. Do you think that's a necessary shift, for us to realize our interdependence with each other and the earth, that everything we do is interconnected?

WM: Well, I think that there is a much greater awareness of that, both at the political level and also at the citizen level. But I also think that there are still a lot of people who feel scared and who feel like they should protect themselves. Today I was talking to students at the University here in Poznan. And one student stood up and asked me the question, and he said, "Well, I wonder whether we here in Poland should be concerned about the rest of the world or we should just close our borders and worry about the many difficult issues that we have here in Poland." And that question of course was very interesting because it shows you that there are still people who feel like, "I have so many problems I have to deal with -- why do I have to go and worry about problems that are far away from me."

But unfortunately the truth of the matter is, I tried to explain to the students, unfortunately, first of all -- you cannot close the borders because it is virtually impossible. Even the Berlin Wall eventually fell down. And today with technological advancement, with the Internet, with planes, with the rate at which we travel -- even if you wanted, you cannot hide from the rest of the world. And whether you like it or not, you are part of this global marketplace, and so you might as well understand it, you might as well embrace it, because even if you hide, it will find you.

And this is why it is so important for people to understand that, especially this issue of climate change, it really does bring home the fact that we are on one planet, and that some of the impact of what human beings do in one corner of the world is going to affect people in a distant corner of the world. So we may still feel very far from each other, but we are really very close to each other because of the changes we have made with travel and technology and especially the information technology.

MS: I was thinking that part of the problem -- even the concept of planting a tree, so many of us are living in cities and often feel disconnected from nature -- I wonder how much that is involved, that our lack of environmental awareness has to do with this growing disconnect where are rarely out there interacting with or appreciating the earth, we keep getting further and further disconnected from our natural surroundings.

WM: That is very, very true. And as you know there is this global migration of people from the land and into the cities and unless government and city councils raise awareness and try to make sure that our children are not disconnected, that we have green spaces, that we have open areas in the city, that we try to bring as much of the countryside back into the city. Not only because we need it, but also because we don't want lose that connectedness. Because if we do, then we shall continue to do things that undermine the very development that we are working for. Today I visited the mayor of Poznan, he's very conscious of the need to protect green spaces in the city, the city must be very green. Right now it is bare because it is winter, but it must be very green. They have a lot of green spaces in the city and that's very, very important for our children to not lose sight of the countryside.

Sometimes when I talk to little children I remind them of the fact that when I was growing up myself, I used to play with frog eggs and tadpoles and I used to walk in the field, I used to literally copy whatever my mother was doing on the land. And that may be the reason why I eventually developed the passion for green and for the Earth. So it is extremely important for adults and especially those who are in charge of cities to make sure that we do not lose touch with the land and with the environment. And especially our children.

MS: I interviewed one of your fellow laureates and co-founder of the Nobel Women's Initiative, Betty Williams. And we have a column by the Nobel Women's Initiative at the web site I run Feminist.com, called United For Peace. How would you describe the sisterhood that exists between the fellow women Nobel Laureates and your work uniting to improve the situation in the world?

WM: Yes, I think it's wonderful that Sherin and Betty Williams -- they came to Nairobi in 2004 shortly after my name was announced for 2004 and this idea was spoke and it has grown by leaps and bounds. And it's just wonderful for us to, as we go on our own separate ways, pushing our own separate agendas, that sometimes we are able to come together and to work on an issue that we all feel strongly about. So it has been very fruitful.

MS: How do you view the situation for women and girls around the world today? I was watching World Focus recently and they were talking about the situation for women in Rwanda and how so many women are now part of Parliament, and they quoted this Rwandan official as saying that "women are the best agents for social transformation." That sounds hopeful, but still in many parts of the world women are oppressed and suffering from horrible forms of injustice and violence.

WM: Well, I think that sometimes we romanticize the role that the women can play, because women in many countries of the world, women are still not in charge. They are still not playing a very important role in decision making. But sometimes when women do find themselves in those positions, we really don't see that much difference. And I have always felt that perhaps women have sometimes almost embraced the same values as men, and the same character as men, because they are in the men's world, and they are trying to fit into a system that men have created. And maybe in truth when there is a critical mass of women who play that role in governments such as what we have in Rwanda, then we will see whether women can really manage power in a way that is less destructive than the way that men have used power. But having said that, I want to say that whenever there are conflicts as you know in Rwanda, or in the DRC right now is the focus, women are so vulnerable and many times they are used by men, they are violated, because men are trying to hurt other men by violating their women.

This is why in fact Jody and I, we were joined by other women including Mia Farrow, the actress, and we went to the Darfur region on the Chad side to visit the women in the refugee camps. And it was so horrific to hear the stories of how women are violated by men, using rape, as they say, as a weapon of war. So as long as we have all these conflicts, it is the women who will continue to suffer, so that is one reason why I guess as women we should really work for peace, because we know how painful wars can be to us and our daughters.

MS: President Barack Obama's father was born in Kenya. How do Kenyans feel about his election? There must be a great sense of pride.

WM: I know that Kenyans are extremely happy for his victory. We definitely are very happy. You should have seen the celebrations in Kenya -- the President declared the day he was elected a national holiday so we didn't have to work on that day! And we are definitely very happy. And I'm hoping that not only Kenya, but the whole of Africa will take advantage of that victory and try to create a better environment for their children and bring an end to conflict, so that their children can be able to exploit their potential the way that Barack Obama has. Because I had an article in The Guardian where I said, what would have happened had he grown up, say, in Africa and was exposed to all these conflicts and wars and misery -- would he have been able to exploit his full potential? And I think it is a big challenge for Africa. They spend so much of their time fighting each other and denying their children the opportunity to exploit their full potential. But in the meantime, I hope that Kenyans will take advantage of the opportunities Obama brings. Businessmen, I hope that a lot of Americans will come and invest in Kenya, and I hope a lot of Americans will be able to come as tourists to see where some of his roots are, and that is a great opportunity. You know, it can only be good!

MS: I actually read that you had met Barack Obama and had planted a tree with him a few years back.

WM: Yes, who would have thought! We were very happy when he came and we knew that he had been following the issues in Kenya, and especially when we were working for the pro-democracy movement, and so we asked him to come and plant a tree at the place which has become symbolic as a symbol of our struggle for pro-democracy movement in Kenya. At that time of course, we were celebrating the fact that he was a Senator, and people were saying that he's a young man who has a lot of potential in the future, so of course -- who would have known! And so it's wonderful to have planted a tree. So when he won, we went back to the same place and we planted another tree to celebrate his victory, not too far from the one he planted -- which was doing very well, by the way.

MS: Do you remember what your impressions were of Barack Obama at the time? Could you have visualized his future?

WM: Well, at that time I was not looking at a future President, I was looking at a very handsome young man, with a wonderful family. He brought his family with him and he struck me as obviously very sensitive, a very strong family man. He was also very likeable, it was very easy for him to interact with the people, because wherever we went people would literally follow him, and it was easy for him to engage. When we were planting that tree, we had not actually announced it, but many people would come, and before no time, there was a big crowd that was waiting for him to speak to them. And you could see that he has this appeal for the people, and he had an easy way of engaging the people. So not surprising that he was able to mobilize America.

MS: What would you want to be saying to Obama regarding the world view?

WM: Well, I think that he has a very good world view, and I support his vision for cleaner energies and other sources of energy, moving away from fossil fuels. I hope that he will pursue that. It seemed like something that he wants to commit to, because I know that we need American leadership in this issue. And as you know, President Bush did not sign the Kyoto Protocol and so for a long time many governments just decided, well if America is not going to subscribe, forget it. And indeed it didn't go very far. We need America. And my understanding right here is that America is still not giving us a lot of leadership, so I really hope that a new message will come from President Obama when he takes over.

MS: The work of The Green Belt Movement has grown and evolved so much over the years. What is its current focus and work?

WM: The current focus is mainly to continue encouraging people to manage their land in a sustainable way, to protect soil erosion, to plant trees. The majority of people still use firewood as their major source of energy. But also to protect degraded forests and to make sure that forests that are still standing are protected. And to continue sharing this experience with others within the region and beyond. That's really what we are trying to do.

And at the moment, I am also in conversation with the University of Nairobi, we would like to have the experience shared by students of the University so that when students from relevant faculties such as the faculty of agriculture, faculty of veterinary science, faculty of departments such as environmental studies -- when these students come out, that they do not only have the knowledge, but they have some experiential learning where they can come and work with The Green Belt Movement and really learn that you cannot protect forests, you cannot protect the land, you cannot protect the environment just by having knowledge alone. You have to take action. You have to take action. And sometimes action means digging a hole, planting a tree, making sure that the trees are protected, making sure that our rivers remain clean, that the lakes are clean. But just having the knowledge, sometimes it doesn't help. Just having the knowledge and going into the office and shuffling papers does not protect the environment. We need action.

MS: There seems to be a lot of focus lately on the problems in Africa. They say that Africa is the cradle of civilization. How do you see the relationship of Africa to the rest of the world?

WM: Well, I think that Africa sometimes is just romanticized, but when it comes to really committing resources, you don't see it as much as one would want to see it. But I also think that African leadership has failed Africa in that the leadership has not committed itself to really working for the welfare of the people of Africa. And proving that indeed when they are assisted, that their assistance is used for the purpose for which it was given. As you know, we have been fighting for many years to have the debts of Africa canceled, we have tried to show that indeed these debts have been paid several times over, and we have tried to say that African governments are not able to provide some of the most basic needs to their people. The need for education, the need for healthcare, even sometimes food, shelter -- these basic needs are not available to the African people. And nobody would listen, especially in the year 2000, remember we had this campaign, 2000 global campaign, to try to persuade governments to cancel the debts of poor countries. They wouldn't.

But at the moment, when we are seeing the amount of money that is made available to businesses because they are threatened. Well, countries like many countries in Africa became bankrupt a long time ago but nobody has even bothered to help them by canceling the debt. So sometimes there is that romantic reference to Africa, but not a real commitment. But I want to blame the world, but I also want to say that African leadership has also failed because quite often they have been found wanting in practicing good governance, responsible governance, free of corruption and misuse of the resources that are available. So that is the way that I would put it.

MS: You travel so much and work so tirelessly, what do you do to nourish and recharge yourself? How do you relax? How do you keep yourself centered so that you can do the important work that you do?

WM: Well, I think what you do is you learn to relax in between those meetings, you do have time in the hotels between meetings and in the planes. And you just learn to relax, because that's the one time when you have time to read, you have time to reflect, you have time, as you say, to nourish. And even in a meeting like this [Poznan Climate Change Conference], you are not talking all the time, and the good thing about it is that in a meeting like this you have some of the best minds in the field and you have time to just sit back in the room and just listen. And it's wonderful. So if you are careful, if you plan your work, you do find the time to nourish yourself.

MS: I was reading a recent article about you and there was this intriguing quote of yours: "You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself, values itself, that understands itself." What did you mean by that?

WM: It was my effort of trying to express something that I've been trying to share especially at home through environmental education -- to say that you have to know yourself, and that once you know yourself, then you cannot be bound by -- because sometimes we are bound by other people's thoughts, because we are not sure about ourselves. But once you know yourself... I guess it is really an expression of the biblical statements that the truth will make you free! When you know, then you are free, your mind is free.

MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at life that helps to guide you in terms of your own journey?

WM: Yeah, I think that in many ways I have the Christian spirituality which I very much shared from my teachers, who were mostly missionaries, and they gave me a lot of that information. And probably the greatest lesson they gave me is not so much what they were talking about, as the way they lived. I really admired their sense of service, sense of self-giving and when I look back, that's what was probably the greatest lesson. I may not remember all the religious dogmas and teachings that they were very busy teaching -- but the way they lived. They were honest, they were hard working, they were compassionate -- they really gave the best of themselves. By the time I met them, they were maybe a little younger than my mother, many of them have now departed, but in my mind they are some of the most beautiful women that I have ever met. Truly committed. And I think that one thing that they taught me, by the way they lived, and that I still value very, very much, is that sense of service.

MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?

WM: That they will live in peace with each other, and that they will live in a clean and healthy environment.

For more information:
The Green Belt Movement
Nobel Women's Initiative

Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine.

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