Fri, Mar

Kenyan Sees Natural Link of Environment, Women's Rights

For Wangari Maathai, a life of curiosity and activism began by stirring up mysterious tiny orbs in a stream near her childhood home in Kenya.

For Wangari Maathai, a life of curiosity and activism began by stirring up mysterious tiny orbs in a stream near her childhood home in Kenya.

The orbs fascinated her. One day they were gone. Instead, she saw wriggling forms that she later knew to be tadpoles. Later still, she knew those future frogs needed clean water. They had it in abundance in the early 1950s.

But by the time Maathai returned home from college, the clean water was gone. Maathai knew she had to do something.

That was one of the seeds for her creation of the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she told an audience Thursday night at Portland, Oregon's Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Maathai, who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work on environmental and social change, was in Portland as part of the International Speaker Series, presented by the World Affairs Council of Oregon.

The Green Belt Movement's main activity involves women's groups planting trees -- more than 30 million across Kenya -- to conserve the environment and empower them toward a better life. The movement later expanded to improving human rights and women's rights.

Maathai said her interest in the environment started with her mother.

"Just working with the land, appreciating the rain, appreciating the germinating seeds," she said.

Maathai, taking part in an education program created under the administration of President Kennedy, earned a bachelor of science degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan.

"I was taught by Benedictine sisters," she said. "Eventually (I) began to practice some of those values that some of those nuns I'm sure were teaching us . . . the value of service, providing support, providing help, be available."

Maathai later earned a master of science degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh. She obtained a doctorate in anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971.

In starting the Green Belt Movement, "I was responding to women from the countryside who expressed they needed firewood, they needed food, they needed clean drinking water," she said. "They need to improve their quality of life in other words."

Maathai was elected to Kenya's parliament in December 2002. In January 2003, she was appointed assistant minister for environment and natural resources and wildlife.

Women in Africa are gaining appointments to government posts in several African nations, but Maathai said she is not encouraged by the trend.

"Women have not been given adequate opportunity to hold leadership positions and to demonstrate that they can do differently and they can do better than what men are doing," she said.

"Quite often, when we have a woman minister -- in Kenya for example, it's two (women) out of a Cabinet of about 35 ministers. So quite often, it's a token. "

Besides urging her audience Thursday night to reduce, reuse and recycle, Maathai said three other rules accompanied her success: "Be determined, be patient, be persistent."

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Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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