Thursday, June 07, 2007

A highlight for me of the Hay Festival 2007 was hearing Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize 2004. What an extraordinary and inspirational individual. I had expected her intelligence and forthrightness to shine through, but she also turned out to be really funny!

On the occasion of her winning the Nobel, the BBC (full article here) noted:
Her former husband, whom she divorced in the 1980s, was said to have remarked that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control".
Read intelligent, articulate, successful, confident and independent instead, and you'd have that about right.

Maathai had a few strong things to say about authoritarian governments in Africa, and about exploitation of Africa by western countries. She argued that unfortunately what often happens when a new government comes to power is that ministers take being in government as an opportunity to accrue power, and become the same as whoever they have replaced. Getting into office often means that MPs get disconnected; she urged, "remember that you are a servant of the people, and not the master."

She feels strongly that we "haven't found a way for human beings to control the urge to control resources at the expense of others," and this is the same no matter where you are in the world. In the Q&A she declared "I really don't think we have a choice" - industrialized countries must reduce emissions for the sake of the entire planet.

I won't repeat all of her many achievements in detail here (read all the links for a better summary than I can manage). Suffice to say that her work for The Green Belt Movement
is what has brought her the most notice in recent years. She related a story of how she was doing research on tick bite fever affecting cattle, when she noticed that the rural area she had grown up in had changed beyond all recognition from her childhood experience. Deforestation and erosion were drastically eating away at the Kenya she knew. So she discarded the research on ticks and forged ahead with a mission to encourage women to plant trees, as it was the women who commented on their need for firewood, among other uses for wood. Women took to the idea like ducks to water. Men took a lot longer to come around, and only did so once they realized how much money they could make in a decade or two once the trees had grown (or that's her version of events anyway!)

Happily for all of us the African Union has decided it is time to strengthen civil society structures across the African continent and Maathai announced they have asked her to head this endeavour. Good luck to her, it is such a key element to development when state structures are failing so badly in many parts of the world.

The Green Belt Movement have blogged themselves about her appearance at Hay, and you can read their own version which is pretty accurate at capturing the feeling on the day, if not the content of her speech.

Suggested further reading by Wangari Maathai:

Wangari Maathari is an exceptional and courageous person. It was an honour to hear her speak.

There appears to be no Hay Festival podcast available for this event, which is a shame - well worth checking back on their site in the future in case it does become available.

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