Wangari Maathai in Nyeri, April 2005
On Thursday, Mia and I accompanied Wangari Maathai and her posse of police officers/bodyguards/drivers—Githonga, Kariti, and Kimojo—to Nyeri, the central district of her Tetu constituency to the north of Nairobi. It was a two-and-a-half hour drive through lush, heavily cultivated land, while Wangari described how the unsustainable agricultural practices of her people were destroying or degrading the ecosystem.
The road turned from smooth tarmac to rough, bumpy tarmac, and eventually became dirt as we passed through the bustling town of Nyeri and arrived at a little village where Wangari was to hand out government bursaries for about three hundred students in her constituency to go on to secondary school. The time was 9 a.m. and fifty-six head teachers or deputy head teachers from the thirty-six sub-locations and six locations of the whole district were meant to be present to receive the checks on their students’ behalf. Wangari had managed to be the first Member of Parliament to get the checks out to her constituents. Unfortunately, virtually everybody except the Member of Parliament herself was late and the meeting didn’t start until about 10:30.
The meeting was in a brick building, with no glass in the windows, corrugated iron on the roof, and the most basic layout possible—just benches and chairs. The usual welcomes were offered—very formally—and all in English, while Mia and I sat at the back accompanied by a Spanish journalist and two people from Mainichi newspapers in Japan, who had decided to interview Wangari that day and had arrived separately. The local District Officer urged the teachers to make an effort to respond to the energy of their MP, and others welcomed the Professor (their name for Wangari) to their area. (It turns out that the government bursaries only covered a portion of the scholarship money required to send a certain number of kids to school. Wangari made up the rest with her own Nobel money. She’d also paid for tea for everyone, including the journalists who arrived late for the handing out ceremony and then got an rerun of the ceremony for the cameras and a press conference for half an hour.)
By this time, we were running about two hours late for our next appointment, which was a town meeting in the tiny town of Ihurura about twenty minutes away. This meeting was to take place in the hall right next to the field where Wangari had had the meeting directly following the news that she had won the Nobel Peace Prize. We were told that the meeting would probably go on for about three hours (and it would be in Kikuyu, the local language) so we joined Francis and James, two locals, in their wheezing van and drove the incredibly bumpy dirt and gravel roads to Ihithe, Wangari’s home village, and to the home of her niece Josephine Wangari. Josephine lived in her late mother’s old house in a little plantation in the lush hillsides. Plants and seedlings were everywhere. The house itself was made of cowdung and dirt, while Josephine’s brother, Nderitu, Wangari’s nephew, had a new house made of wood and corrugated iron next door. Water came from a tank outside; there seemed to be no indoor plumbing; and electricity was slated to arrive when the pylon was buried in the hole that had been dug in the ground. It was striking to think that this was where Wangari came from, just as it was to see how far she had to walk to primary school (which we saw from a distance) and to the local town, which was a bunch of houses along one road.
We returned to the town meeting, to find Wangari still standing and speaking and (apparently) urging on her constituents to greater efforts. We decided to wait for her to finish at the nearby Outspan Hotel, which is where Wangari had had her first press conference after receiving the Nobel, and the nearest hotel to Treetops, the famous tree house where you can see all the animals come to a watering hole to eat and drink. We sat at the Outspan and enjoyed the gardens and the company of a roving peacock and an inquisitive kitten while it moved toward dusk and slowly but surely the clouds that covered the peak of Mount Kenya moved off, until, in the gloaming, we finally saw the peak. Wangari and the posse arrived, we had soup, and then set off home through the darkness. Not surprisingly, perhaps, we didn’t get much sleep, as Wangari drifted off. She’d had a fifteen-hour-day. Whatever you think about her, she works very hard.
All in all it had been a fascinating day. Mia and I were impressed, and sometimes amused, by the processes of local democracy, and touched by how seriously and deeply Wangari takes her role as a Member of Parliament. Being able to help people—and to do so as an elected representative—is obviously where her heart lies. Everybody was very gracious and informative, welcoming us and happy to have us as their guests. We have even managed to get some taping in, in off moments, and are relatively happy with how much we have so far.
And, suddenly and unexpectedly, it rained. A brief, hot, shower that dampened the red, dusty, soil, and cleaned the air.