Wangari Maathai's Tetu Constituency
On Saturday, Mia and I headed off with Wangari Maathai to her Nyeri constituency. It was a gorgeous clear and sunny morning (it having rained heavily the previous night) and you could see Mt. Kenya from the road, floating above the low mist. As far as we could see there was green—cultivation of tea, bananas, maize, and many trees (most of them exotics). To us, it seemed miraculously fertile—especially now that it had rained and everything seemed to be covered in water—but to Wangari Maathai it was a shadow of what it had once been. The trees, she explained, were mainly eucalyptus, imported from Australia, which, while fast growing and thus a good source of timber, also sucked up water, causing streams to die and precious water to be lost. The bright green sheen of tea plants that flowed down the hills was to her symptomatic of Kenya’s pell-mell pursuit of cash crops rather than food security—and also not a good bulwark against soil erosion, since tea does not hold the soil as well as trees or native plants do. The patchwork of plantations and smallholdings that blanketed the hillsides and valleys to her were symptomatic of the piecemeal nature of environmental conservation. On our way back to Nairobi the next day, she showed us the countryside outside Murang’a. “Everything you see here,” she said, “is the result of the Green Belt Movement. As far as the eye can see.” We looked out over, perhaps, five to ten miles of valleys and hills, filled with trees.
The trip brought home the reality of the work of the Green Belt Movement. We visited a tree nursery sponsored by the Green Belt Movement, which, for the first time, is working with the forestry department rather than having to deal with their enmity and obstruction. The nursery stood next to a tree plantation, with row upon row of ordered pine trees. These trees are grown solely for commercial use. We then went and saw two parcels of land that had been replanted by Green Belt Movement after the (in one case, illegal) farmers had left the parcel. Unlike the tree plantation there was a rich undergrowth that was forming; the commercial trees kill all the undergrowth. In the GBM area there was the sound (and sight) of bird and insect life; the tree plantation was silent.
We also visited a site where the Green Belt Movement women were actually planting trees. It was a lush valley, heavily eroded by overgrazing and loss of tree cover. There was room for about a thousand trees, and there were holes in the ground on each of the hillsides leading to the valley. These would be filled in by the women. It was wonderful to see the seedlings actually going into the ground and to know that tens of thousands of women over nearly thirty years had done the same thing some thirty million times.
All afternoon we had been accompanied by an American from the World Bank who was interested in seeing what the Green Belt Movement was doing. As you might imagine, he was full of questions about quantifiability: how many trees, survival percentage, most successful types of trees, how many women, how much money, how much monitoring. He offered no money, but we learned later that he had been impressed by the work and indicated that he would try to find ways to help. It was striking, however, how he—in a literal manner—couldn’t see the wood for the trees, for it was clear to me that this was so much more than about planting trees. It was about the dignity of labor, the replenishment of degraded land, and a reimagination of the future that is community-centered rather than technologically driven, where the success of a program is measured in decades of human and environmental survival rather than carbon offset data, carbon trading, and the consumption patterns of the industrialized countries.
We stayed overnight at the Green Hills Hotel in Nyeri, the bustling capital of the Central Highlands of Kenya and the “front line” of the Kikuyu-led resistance to the British in the 1950s that is known as the Mau Mau Rebellion. By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was dark and pouring with rain, and under the fluorescent lights thousands of winged ants were hatching from their eggs, mating, and then flying into the light (“Seek the Light”) and dying. They were everywhere, dropping their wings and spiraling to the ground. Whether my mood had been created by seeing work done that day that would not bear fruit for another one and a half to two decades at least, I do not know, but I found myself fascinated by this exhibition of evanescence and the futility of lives that last only a fraction of time. Within two hours, all the ants had gone, leaving the floor sprinkled with broken wings, waiting for the next time the rains came.
The next morning, Sunday, we went to church. This was one of the churches belonging to the Presbyterian Church of East Africa and was a stone building (with windows) in a nearby village. The word had gone ahead (for security reasons it had had to) that Wangari Maathai was coming, and so the church was full (about three hundred people). We wuzungu (white people—not necessarily a pejorative term) were the guests, and so we sat next to her. The entire service was in Kikuyu—hymns, prayers, sermon, exhortations, even collecting the money—with the occasional English word thrown in. It also lasted close to FOUR hours, with singing and dancing and a rousing speech from Wangari Maathai, who made them laugh, applaud, sit still, move, and sing. She was in her element, speaking to her people in her people’s language, and she came alive in a way I had not seen before, and anyone who has seen her will testify that she is a very vital lady. Every time she said a sentence, it seemed, the people would murmur their approval. It was like a call and response.
We were introduced by Wangari and Mia said a few gracious words. As in all churches across the world, I imagine, the pews were filled with older women, who wept when two men came up to tell everyone that they had been saved, and who got up to dance and sing the many very catchy hymns, that were accompanied only by a drum. Mia, who had attended a ceremony very like this before when she was in Kenya, was somewhat blasé about the occasion. I, however, found it absorbing, if literally incomprehensible and very long. This was undoubtedly a faith based on need—for these were very poor people, with little in the way of material possessions, living out a hard-scrabble life on the land that, through their need for quick cash over long-term sustainability, they were themselves depleting of life. Wangari told them all this—exhorting, cajoling, pleading, commanding, praying with them to help them see that once the trees were gone, so would the topsoil, the water, and the communities.
We made our way back to Nairobi that afternoon, avoiding as much as we could the huge potholes, the vendors, and the dusty towns. We went back through the Guru valley, and extraordinarily beautiful, deeply patchworked quilt of small farms and holdings, where Wangari had spent much of her early childhood in a much more heavily wooded and sustainably harvested landscape. She told us that for those who do not know—us, this generation, the generations to come—it seems beautiful, even idyllic, but that beneath the surface, literally in the case of the water held in the ground—the fertility was dying. She said that the area where she grew up would normally have received a meter (!) of rain in three months, making the soil a sponge, and the rivers torrents, and providing an extraordinary amount of fertility for the growing of yams, arrowroot, and bananas. Now there was less rain and the rain that did fall was simply washing down the hillsides, turning the streams and rivers that had been clear or white with foam into muddy brown, silted meanderers, or simply dying completely. It was strange to readjust one’s eyes to see beneath the surface of the beauty into the underlying troubles that could turn this green valley into a brown, barren, dry desert in a few generations if current deforestation and agricultural practices continue. It was a sobering experience.