Maria Ivanova Interviews Wanjira Mathai at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies
On September 20th, 2013, Prof. Maria Ivanova interviewed Wanjira Mathai as part of a 2-day symposium “Africa’s Green Future: Nurturing the Vision of Wangari Maathai.” The event was held at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, and it celebrated the life and work of Wanjira’s mother, Wangari Maathai.
Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In 1977, she founded the “Green Belt Movement”, which spurred bottom-up mobilization, community and women empowerment in conservation efforts, and the planting of trees. She passed away in September 2011. The Green Belt Movement continues to work on community empowerment and education, tree planting for biodiversity conservation, restoration of ecosystems and watershed protection, and advocacy, both at the grassroots and international levels.
As the director of international affairs of the Green Belt Movement and project leader of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies, Wanjira Mathai carries forward her mother’s legacy in peace, empowerment and environment. The Institute, founded in 2009, is based at the University of Nairobi and provides multi-disciplinary research, training in sustainable management of environmental resources, as well as Master’s and PhD degrees in environmental governance.
During the event, Maria Ivanova looked back on when she met Wangari Maathai at Yale University, in 2002 when Maathai was a McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation. She recounted Maathai’s engagement in research and in student life and opening up opportunities for engagement internationally. In 2005, Ivanova (then a doctoral candidate) and Gordon Geballe, Associate Dean at the Environment School at Yale, brought their class of 26 students to Nairobi to present their work at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and to engage in the activities of the Green Belt Movement.
“Inspired by Wangari Maathai,” Ivanova said, “we were able to connect the local and the global levels of governance seamlessly. As environmentalists in heels and pin-striped suits, we conveyed a powerful policy message to environmental ministers from around the world convening in Nairobi: an agenda for reforming the UN Environment Programme. Two days later, we quickly transformed into environmentalists in Birkenstocks clearing brush and planting trees with the women of the Green Belt Movement.”
During the interview, Ivanova also explored Wanjira Mathai’s relationship with her mother and her work, as well as her leadership position in both the Green Belt Movement and the Wangari Maathai Institute. Wanjira recalls that, even though the family was living in a state of danger and vulnerability because of her mother’s environmental work, which became very political, Wangari Maathai made sure to act like any other mom. “She wanted us to understand that that was her path, yes, but that it was not extraordinary.”
Wangari Maathai’s work, however, inspired her daughter to engage in the movement. Educated in the United States in public health and business administration, Wanjira returned to Kenya in 2002 and has been leading the international affairs portfolio of the Green Belt Movement operations. Carrying Maathai’s vision, she works on translating talk into action in a way that authentically engages the community members, as well as on proposing policies with long-term beneficial impacts.
During the conference, the Yale community remembered and celebrated Wangari Maathai’s legacy through a screening of Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai, a documentary about her life, and panel discussions. At the end, participants planted a tree, a swamp white oak, in her honor.