SMNTY's Female Firsts Playlist, Episode 8: Wangari Muta Maathai

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Made them, which is important part we did we did. You're here to tell the tell that actually is probably a very important part to a lot of these female I. We talk about Yeah, you're right because they do get pretty intense in some parts like they went through lie, they struggled a lot and they fought a lot, but you know they did a lot of things to yes, and the one the person he brought for us today, she did so much. US and very important to the discussions. We're having now around the environment and sustainability things that are on a lot of people's minds as it should be. Yeah! That's exactly what I was thinking I was like I feel like it's really good to be able to talk about today. We're going to be talking about. When Gary Muthu Matai, and she did a lot of stuff that had to do with environmental activism, and that is clearly something that we're talking about right now today and I didn't choose. Say Oh. Let me find somebody who's doing something that has to do with the environment. It just kind of came like. Oh, she's someone who is. You know first of all from the African continent which I feel like. Maybe we've. Discussed somebody from African, continent. So far I can't remember but yeah. That was really important to me and also the actual work that she's doing is so relevant in to what we're talking about and. is also very recent and also had a very global impact. And she knows what she's talking about. She knows what she's doing and she's also left a great legacy behind her. That just kind of touched. People of all different cultures and people of all different nationalities which I think is a really cool thing. Yeah when I I was reading her her story I. Always stress the importance of context in these stories that we. To us. And it's is recent and it's kind of shocking. How much she did and how much things have changed? Just through the sixties and seventies kind of just this tumultuous. Cauldron of all these things happening. Yeah, and is also just you know very indicative of the actual issues that people were going through in Kenya. On the African continent at the time, because obviously environmental issues are global issues, but they're also very specific to the locales and climates, in which all the activists separately reside They're all different, but also related in some way, and I think her perspective, and how she kind of got into. Her activism and her work is indicative of, but I feel like I'm getting ahead of myself. Right now percents. Let's go. Like, Oh, my gosh, she's amazing. Who she really is. So, yeah. Ty was the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, and she was the first woman to become an assistant professor at the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman ahead of University Department in Kenya and the first woman in eastern and Central Africa to earn A. So a lot of I. Yeah, that's what we're here for right. That's right. So. She was born on April first nineteen forty in Kenya. And she was the daughter of Kickapoo subsistence. Farmers the are an ethnic group and Kenya. She had five siblings, and she was raised in an area of Kenya that was known as the white highlands which was so called. Because there is policy that agricultural lands in Kenya. For Europeans, so her older brother convinced their parents that she go to school rather than focus on household responsibilities, which you could imagine plentiful because she had so many siblings rather big family to take care of. She went to the teeth, a primary school. The Saint Cecilia School and then the Laredo Lamoureux girl school, so after completing school air, she got a scholarship, and that's because the Kennedy. Administration, in the US at the time, was funding initiatives for people in. Eastern Africa and then Kenya specifically to study in the US and so that's how she got a scholarship to study at university in the US. So where she ended up, going was mount. Saint Scholastica College in Kansas, and she stayed in us to study at university for a bitch who graduated with her bachelors and biology in Nineteen, sixty four, and then she stayed in the US you got her master's from the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. And then so by this time. When she returned to Kenya after she graduated. The whole eastern colonialism process was Indian Kenya. Had gained independence. and. When she went back there is she had a research assistant position that had been promised to her, so she was recruited to be a research assistant in zoology, and that was at the University of Nairobi, and she found out when she got to the campus that she had been denied the position, and she thought that that was because of gender discrimination, so after that she got another research assistant position and this time it was in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. So she started she continued working twos, not discouraged by that so started pursuing her doctoral studies in Germany Scar, PhD from the University of Nairobi, so she was the first woman to get a doctorate degree in east and Central Africa Wow! That's pretty neat. I can't even imagine writing the first. Person or woman. Level achievement that level of achievement. Yeah, yeah, my first or Not Not on that same plane. That's cool though it didn't lead a pathway for other women, not that I know of. Such thing. Not that I know of I mean just like. I wonder. Reporting on the the like. Wow, look. This woman has become the first to do this. Yes. And all the negativity possibly probably. But as we know from. Previous people and just in general how these things work a lot of those first aren't recognized in a contemporary manner is just like the person's doing thing, and then we go back and look at them sometimes posthumously. You know way back in the day but we start to realize okay, you know. This? This happened and this is part of a long story in a long lineage of people and things that they did. So we kind of. The first within that history after Tom Right. That's true. That's a good point. As far as her personal life, she married Nairobi businessman who kind of had aspirations in politics and she married him in nineteen, sixty nine. She met him a few years before, and eventually they had three kids together, and he ran for parliament in the early nineteen seventies. His first campaign was unsuccessful. Even though she helped him with that and then. Later in their story in the early nineteen eighties, they went through this whole divorce suit and he accused her of. And is also said that he thought that she was to educated in too strong, willed, minded and too hard to control in that was part of the reason that they got a divorce, but it was a pretty contentious situation she ended up going to court lost the case. They ended up getting divorced. She was even jailed for a short time about three days after it because she accused the judge of being incompetent. WHOA, and this is also when his last name was spelled with one A.. T H and. She changed her name to have to. As because of the whole situation. They requested that. Yeah, so it was that was you know later in life after years of them having been together, they separated before they divorced, but. That was part of their story. Yeah so in nineteen seventy three, and this is where we get to all of the thinks. Obviously, we're not gonNA have room to talk about every single thing that she did because she did so many different things. but in one thousand, nine, hundred thirty, she became the director of Nairobi's branch of the National Red Cross, so we see her already. In the late sixties early seventies, getting into all of her activism, all of her environmental work in realizing through her research, and just her personal life like observation the the thing. I really love about her stories. How often we think of! How we think of academics in terms of the work that they do like they did all this study at these universities, and this is their education. What influence them in what made them be able to address issues in a certain way, but observation is also very important thing in our lives. That can drive us to do better things because I think. Her story is just a great example of that like she talks about how much in her during her childhood and during her life. How she was just not what was happening around her house, she was listening to village women. Tell her what they needed. And that observation is a big part of what. What drove her to do her environmental work realizing that she could connect the things that are actually happening around her and the work that she's interested in doing and the skills that she does have in the education that she is getting and combining the two will those several things together to really create a huge impact so I really like that about her story. Yes Oh. She started moving up in her roles at the university. She became a senior lecturer in one thousand, nine hundred seventy S, and she became the chair of her department, and then she became an assistant professor in nineteen, seventy seven, so her postdoctoral research made her as I was saying aware of all the things that was happening in her country, especially in the rural areas and All the issues that people were facing whether they had to do with the environment or personal issues and we'll. We'll get into some of the things that specifically that drove her research that happening and Kenya at the time. The later. Her husband campaigning for a seat in parliament again one and this is before they divorced. One thing that he advocated for was finding jobs for unemployed, and so with that spirit that energy that was happening. Matai connected to her environmental efforts, and then she started. This business called Enviro care where she was getting people to plant trees. That business wasn't that successful, but those efforts did lead her to. You know more successful efforts and the connections that she already had with all these people do the work that she was doing. Let her getting the National Council of Women of Kenya to help her launch a tree planting project called save the land in Bay. In Harlem, Bay is a Swahili word that means all pulled together, and that eventually turned into the Green Belt Movement, which is one of her. You know the most well known initiatives even did time right. Yeah, but that's. A huge. It's a big. She was active in the National Council. Of Women of Kenya, for a really long time around nineteen, seventy, six, eighty, seven, while she was serving with them, see started introducing this idea of community based tree planting that she had already introduced her other work. Much of the population in Africa. DEPENDENT ON WOOD FOR FUEL BUT EH at the time. There was a lot of deforestation happening so as still is. But trees were depleted because they were being raised in. They weren't being replaced at the same rate so obviously that leads to a lot of different issues, including nutritional deficiencies poverty because there would be. They had to walk a long way to get water to be able to get the fuel There is desert where there once was trees. The deforestation also caused soil, runoff and water pollution. Pollution, which is obviously important to a person. be able to sustain themselves in terms of the food that they eat and speaking of sustain themselves. A lot of the children also had to start being fit with processed foods because of this and livestock to have vegetation to eat, and on top of all that under the colonial period like British governors, they were planting nonnative trees instead of indigenous trees. So it just had all these. Effects, on the way that people lived in their ability to live hole in fruitful lives. So she started getting into all that and realizing how that affected people and specifically women, and she opened agency that pain, impoverished people to plant trees and shrubs, and so she decided to campaign. For a seat in parliament that will become open and in nineteen two. And to do this. She had to resign from the University of Nairobi. That was when condition that she. She couldn't be there to be able to run and so the electoral authorities said that she couldn't Ryan. She was disqualified for money because you hadn't registered to vote so because of that registration the last presidential election because that registration technicality they kind of pulled her out of that situation, and she obviously took issue with that decision, but she ended up. You know being disqualified anyway and. Wanted to go back to the university, because obviously she needs a job and they refused to rehire her or restore benefits and. They objected her from university housing. She was no longer there anymore, right. Oh. Man That's. That's yeah time so that's definitely one. Thread in her story, which is. There she had a lot of opposition, so she did have a lot of supporters and also supported a lot of people through employment. And just like you know personal support, but. She had a lot of people who oppose the work that she was doing because she was so pro democracy the things that she was talking about that. She was standing up against and was viewed as kind of anti-government, and in that respect a lot of the press. that. She got in that the Green Belt Movement guy in the media. was negative right and because of that a lot of people were discouraged from wanting to be associated with the movement. Because of its you know. Reputation. But it was still a successful movement. We'll get into. So, she poured her energy into that Green Belt Movement and Its main focus was poverty, reduction and environmental conservation and focusing on this singular goal of planting. and. Is Goal was to plant trees all across Kenya erosion and to create firewood for the fuel for people there and to create jobs for women, because women were really instrumental and being the people who planted the trees, and so over the years they planted tens of millions of trees in Africa Yes, they did this by establishing tons of nurseries that offered free seedlings. in the communities plant them and very small small payment was given for every tree that was planted, but they had to make sure that they took care of the tree for three months. That was part of the deal, and even though it's a small amount. That can make a big difference. Someone's life for many of those women who are subsistence farmers. It did have extra food to give. For our to sail not give. That money was some of their only income. And tens million. US was able to help that many different ways amazing. Yeah, it is yeah and I think that'd be really cool. I know we'll probably get this later, but there's an interview. that one guy did with on on being, and she described power of seeing a tree that you've planted right years and years later knowing. You did that and it's. Yeah, it's yeah. The the this tree became the tree itself through all the work that she did it. Kind of became this movement of democracy of like. Legacy of of so many things through the work that she did. A really good point. And all the work through the green, belt movement also helped conserve the soil and the ecology of the land and obviously gave. Thousands of people. Opportunities for employment. And she worked over time. This became more than just about trees. Obviously, it was that from the beginning, but they also started to provide other services besides tree planting, so she worked with the National Council of Women of Kenya to give services like family planning like nutrition and food security, HIV, awareness and leadership skills, so it became this environmental and civic educational program for people, and that ended up spreading its tendrils through a bunch of countries, in Africa and throughout the world as well and eventually at formerly separated the National Council of Women. and. See even though Matai was already so in politics became more involved in politics over time. And protests and activism, and in Nineteen, eighty nine, she protested the construction of a huge office tower. Who Park in Nairobi? So she started sending out a bunch of letters to. All of these people different government officials different organizations in Kenya to protest. Like just putting the pressure on people to protest this office tower, being built a whole complex thing, and she claimed that the building was expensive, and that money should instead be spent on other things because this is going to be a ten million dollar project. Like poverty, hunger education and obviously this project had a bunch of foreign investors, and through all of the processing that happened even though she was getting a lot of. flack impressed once again for her protests and for. NOT BEING! Quiet cuasing complacent in all those things that a woman. WAS SUPPOSED TO BE She still managed to that that whole. Protests managed to be successful and investors ended up pulling out of the whole situation not long after her protests began, and the skyscraper wasn't bill. That was one thing of the many things he protested against and she also the one party state that there was in Kenya at the time. So Matab was also involved in the form for the restoration of democracy, which was a group that opposed among other things. This kind of branched off had groups in different countries, but In Kenya was opposed to the leadership of the President Daniel are up moy and her opposition aren't her the IR the president. Not just through her work with the forum, but also all the other things that she was doing so going back to that project. With the office tower he was. Really against her speaking about that, too, and had a lot of nasty things to say about her. For Her vocalisations on that issue and she faced. Many arrests, beatings and dealings because of the work that she was doing. She advocated for the release of political prisoners, and in Nineteen ninety-two she went on a hunger strike with a group of mothers of Political Prisoners and That ended up being successful, even though she and a lot of other people who are involved in the strike were be in by police during the protest, but at the end of that strike, the government did it released the majority of the political prisoners. We have a lot more of our discussion with ease, but first we have a quick break for a word from our sponsor. Back thank you sponsor. Let's get back into it. She was also arrested more for protest and later charged with spreading rumors that the president was planning to government power over to the military, and so while she was in jail, waiting on her charge, she was refused. Medical treatment so is just like it's. There was a lot of like fighting happening there. There was a lot of conflict. And a lot of this kind of fabrication of like issues when it came to the work that she was doing because she was so vocal because she was so active. In her. Environmental Causes. So nineteen ninety-seven. She said that she was running for parliament and for the President Presidency See as part of the Liberal Party of Kenya. and. As part of her campaign, she was continuing to say the same things be about the about what she always been about basically denouncing the corruption in the government and imagining a society where people really embraced their. Cultural is spiritual background as participated in government, but her candidacy was withdrawn by the party without notifying her. Until days before the election that said she did, it announced her campaign until not long before the election itself, but. She ended up not getting that parliament seat. Wow. Think. They didn't tell her. Just like. People are afraid of strong women. This is true of power and obviously the opposition. They had to do everything they could. To try to undermine her. Mortgage seems yeah. She was determined yes. Another thing that she did as part of all her work was working on the Jubilee Two thousand campaign, which was this global campaign but in her case when she became the CO chair of the campaign Kenya, she did in Nineteen, Ninety eight. Specifically focusing on the countries, in Africa, but the whole campaign was aiming to cancel foreign debt for poor countries by the year two thousand, which is where that number two thousand comes from the name of the campaign. Yeah, so she wasn't. There were a lot of people who are against her including. You Know Moy and all a bunch of other government officials and just people in general. Who didn't like how she was challenging? Government and How she was speaking for all these pro democracy positions, and all these activities that she had going on in relation to that. Just as some examples, she was hospitalized in Nineteen, ninety, nine for a head wound and a concussion that she suffered during Government arranged attack so oh, she was working on this project where she in some supporters were planting trees in a forest, which his in Nairobi, and she was protesting against a clearing of the forest for private development. That's one thing that happened to her. At another point. They forced the green. Belt Movement to move from its office. in a government owned building to her home. She when she formed the tribal clashes, resettlement volunteer service in Nineteen, ninety, three to help victims of state sanctioned political violence in the valley. The government accused her of inciting violence and try to shut down her. Organizations meetings by sending police to disrupt things. Yeah so those are some of the things that she was up against The list could go on, but we won't do that. Yeah, it sounds like quite a lot and she. Put Her. She was somebody who put her body on the line. Let's say she was a powerhouse. and. Everything obviously in her work ethic, and just in her beliefs. Yeah, she was unmovable. Plant like a tree yeah Oh, we could. Work together that we're. Civil We Got America I'm actually surprised. There haven't been more tree puns, but I'm I'm glad it's not appropriate. You're saving them for the. Here all in my. Keeping them to myself for once. You writing it though for later. So one of her biggest opponents. Left office in two thousand two and that same year she ran for parliament and was elected with large majority of the vote The President ended up appointing her the Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and wildlife, and she's serving the government and parliament until two thousand five. And this is We're getting into the later years of her life at this point and she was recognized for a lot of her work. She got a lot of. Honorary Degrees and awards like too many to mention here. But a ton of them, but one of the big ones was the Nobel Peace Prize, which he got in two thousand and four. and. She was the first. African woman to get the Nobel Peace Prize and she got it for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. So, that's that's one of the awards that she got and in her acceptance speech which Is. Really interesting noted how she was influenced by the things that you know as we were talking about earlier, she observed when she was a child and Kenya she soft. Boris being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, and she saw local bio diversity being destroyed, and she also said that when she started the Green Belt Movement, she was really responding to the needs that rural women were saying that they had which were specifically the lack of firewood clean drinking water ballots diets shelter income. And she also called out to the facts, which is how integral women were in the development of the work that she wanted to do with the Green Belt Movement and the work this you ended up doing with the movement and. That because saying that because they were primary caretakers throughout Africa, there was responsible for taking care of the land, and for taking care of the family that they were often the first ones to. Become, aware of any environmental damage that was happening even if they didn't recognize one thing was necessarily affecting the other in their personal experience. Right, yeah! And she got yeah, so some of the other wars got were the Goldman Environmental Prize the French. Legion of Honour Japan's grand cordon of the order of the rising Sun like I said more honorary degrees also authored several books. One of them was a memoir that was called unbowed, and another book called a challenge for Africa and other writings. She was named a UN messenger of peace in two thousand nine. And the next year in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she found it the Wangari Matai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. And Yeah, so she just continued. Help not only doing her homework and her organization when it came to environmental causes, but also participating in like teaching other people about those things and making sure that other people learn about. Environmental issues when it came to academics, but just general, you know environmental education for people. so. You know spreading all of that knowledge around the world. And in two thousand eleven, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. ISSUE ENDED UP dying. From complications of the cancer. Yet, but her legacy. That was what you know only so long ago, but you know her legacy. Is clearly still apparent in the world in apparent in Kenya and she's well remembered, and fortunately was able to be recognized during her lifetime. Yeah and I think one of my favorite things about her. On the things that she did is there is this awareness of? Taking care of the future of looking out for future generations that she started all of these things and spread her knowledge to sure that things would continue once she was no longer around, and I actually think. That's one of the biggest problems with humanity, and when it comes to sustainability is we're really bad about doing that or a really bad about thinking. About Future Generations because right now, this is the easy thing to do to continue as we are right, but she. Made sure that she's left behind these things so that hopefully. We could continue the work that she was doing right. Yeah, it seems her whole. Ideas were an idea of the big picture. She didn't see as one little thing we're planting. Trees were planting trees, but with these things in mind whether it's to provide economic stability for a a group of women who group of people who need that assistance right now. We'll do it through this avenue. She had this very thoughtful consciousness of how to get things done in a multifaceted way, which is phenomenal especially when you think of how little that happens today, there's no real conversation of what can we do and put it together as a blanket, not necessarily blanket. Blanket, but at least an overhaul of a whole system, and that's what she did, which all on her own, which is phenomenal especially with all of the pushback insane? Okay, you go, you aren't seeing the bigger picture. You're just angry because I'm making a difference and it could be taken away from you whether it's money or your fame or your credibility, but this is what it has to be done. That's phenomenal isn't a whole different level of thoughtfulness and whole different level of understanding the need for sustainability, the need for growth and the need to continue beyond. And I think that to the interesting point about what she said of her being having this kind of multifaceted, and she worked her vision was also very singular. And Focused and like she was like I have a goal I know high can get the thing done, and we're going to get it and we're GONNA. Get it done together, and just the way in which she empowered so many people not in not from a position of I, have the things and I have the knowledge and I have the education I was fortunate enough to go to. You know us to study. You know under this scholarship that was funded by the government or anything like that. It was just Kinda like. I'm not giving these people these things. These opportunities because I'm able to do that because she hasn't. She is using her of power. Obviously, but it was in such a way that was community laid. You know it was in such a way that was about the way that people work together and. Just. It being so inspiring the fact that she realized how important it was to incorporate all these other things when it came to the leadership development and stuff like that where this wasn't just about a person here. They are getting this many Kenyan since to. Grow a tree right it was about. Growing trees and creating a better environment and creating a better world, and within that creating better communities that were able to. And not just survive in. That were connected in that. Were you know? future focus, but also present focused in a way they were like this is my community that I have now and I'm working together with to really in Zimbabwe, where my hands are on the soil, and really contributing to the future of my community, but also I'm thinking about our children that are here right now. What kind of food I'm eating them? What do our traditional diets look like? But also the future like what will, the land looks like to them. Would they be able to respect their land? Children are learning to respect them land at the same time. It's just think. Everything that she was doing was. So important, but I'm just so struck by how. Many different things, but still how tight like right here vision? And that's. Very Cohesive An amazing balancing act to pull off of yeah. We need to think about the future generations, but we also have to think about. President like to be able to do both. I mean that's amazing. Creed Yeah I also really find so many of the US women. He bring to his ease. I find it so impressive. that. We know as women at least I can speak from my own I I always all these doubts I have all these outs and a Lotta Times. It keeps me from even putting myself forward for things. We know that's why a lot of women don't run for office, and it's not to say that the women you brought to don't have doubts, but they just like I. Somebody needs to do this. I can do it right. I'm GONNA step up. Well I. Mean You and I have talked about the Times that we get criticisms, and that kind of sometimes shuts me down. I can't imagine the level of lies and criticisms that were thrown at her purposely by the most powerful man in that that nation. At that point I mean I could not I don't know I, don't know. How would fathom even fill under pressure? But to continue for and still keep fighting and still keep fighting. Still being told you know you are whatever damaging by those who have the loudest voices, but knowing that she could make a difference in what she's doing this like right? Is Amazing. To look back on it now you're like. Oh, wow, that's encouraging, but to be in the middle of that I don't know. Like Oh, the fear of failing is already there, but told you're ruining something or you're. You're disasters to something. What a way to have to fight against that. How do you do that and I wash able to do that and she did though. Finally got what she deserved all the accolades as she did. Earn but man that road to get there. Right had to be a long long very loud. Yeah. It's impressive in inspiring in a good way to start the year. Yeah, I I'm. Is there anything else you wanted to have? I don't think so I would highly recommend the interview on on being very beautiful. Yeah, and just anything where she speaks. Highly recommend if you're looking for some some inspiration like a new found appreciation of tree. Right my guys right? We are also in a city of trees, so we are big, if speaking of things being topical that is a topic of conversation in Atlanta where we are right now, which is that we've historically been called the city of like the city in the forest, and we are known for having a ton of trees, which we're not the biggest metropolis like in the United States and definitely not in the world, but. For being a city of our size and stature, we have a lot of forests in the tree canopy here, but a lot of that is also being raised for private development and justification, which are huge things that are happening right now in Atlanta so on a micro level from this macro conversation we're having. All of her work very relevant to things that are happening here in Metro. Atlanta, right absolutely That's one of my favorite parts about Atlanta so. Who will continue to see where that goes? We have more to talk about but I. We have one more quick break for word from our sponsor. And we're back. Thank you. But in the meantime, thank you so much for for coming on always having me, where can the listeners find you on social media on that is on Facebook, instagram or twitter? I'm on this day in history class, which is different podcast that one's about days in history. you could also find me at unpopular on all those same social media platforms. yeah, our Eve's Jeffco is my name and do whatever you want to do with that information. Yes. But yeah listeners, you should definitely go. Check both of those out there amazing. And if you would like to contact. You can guess our email is stuff media, mom, stuff, iheartmedia, dot, com, you can find us on twitter at MOM's up podcast or on instagram at stuff never told you thanks as always to your super producer Andrew Howard and thanks to you for listening stuff I'm never told us production of iheartradio's how stuff works for more podcast from iheartradio visit, iheartradio, APP, apple, podcasts, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows. 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