Wangari Maathai: I will be a hummingbird

The elites have become predators, self-serving and only turning to people when they need them. We can never all be equal, but we can ensure we do not allow excessive poverty or wealth. Inequality breeds insecurity.
– Wangari Maathai

John Vidal’s obituary for Wangari Maathai in The Guardian today is a stirring account of the life and achievements of an exemplary woman. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and the first Nobel laureate to make the link between keeping peace and conserving the environment:

The state of any country’s environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace.

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement is led by and for rural Kenyan women. What began with planting a few tree seedlings grew to forever reshape the political landscape of Kenya and the world. Maathai trained thousands of women on everything from water conservation to civic leadership, and to date, they’ve planted 35 million trees in a country devastated by deforestation. Along the way, they also helped overthrow a dictatorship.

Vidal observes that initially, the Green Belt movement’s tree-planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace.  However, it became clear to Maathai that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without effective democracy. The tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya and a way of challenging widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement:

The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree-planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree.

Vidal begins by recalling his last conversation with Maathai:

For a young Kikuyu girl growing up in the early 1940s, the small village of Ihithe, in the lush central highlands of Kenya, was next to perfect. There were no books or gadgets in the houses, but there were leopards and elephants in the thick forests around, clean water, rich soils, and food and work for everyone. “It was heaven. We wanted for nothing. … Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live.”

And you can hear the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings when you read that after graduating from high school in 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the ‘Kennedy airlift’ in which 300 Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – were chosen to study at American universities in 1960.

After her return from the US, Maathai became increasingly involved in environmental causes and activism.  In 1977, the first ‘Green Belt’ action in Nairobi instigated what became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged women throughout Kenya to plant tree nurseries in their villages, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

Presenting her with the Peace Prize in 2004, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking  ‘a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular’ and for serving ‘as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights’.

Elsewhere in The Guardian, John Vidal has written of Maathai’s fierce denunciation of the rich north in a talk she gave on a visit to Britain in 1988:

The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top.

Her disdain for the economics promoted by Britain, the World Bank, and the west was huge:

The economic and political systems are designed to create more numbers, population pressures show no sign of waning, deforestation and desertification continue. The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs.

Wangari Maathai planting a tree

In a tribute on the BBC website, Richard Black, Environment Correspondent, writes:

It’s not just planting trees – it’s the reasons why trees are planted, it’s the social side of how the tree-planting works, it’s the political work that goes alongside tree-planting, and it’s the vision that sees loss of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people down the track.

There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against these ideas.  Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as possible with no regard for problems that may cause.

Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western capitals that might make use of the fruits of such exploitation – cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals. It is the opposite of sustainable.

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is a documentary film that tells the dramatic story of a woman whose simple act of planting trees grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, protect human rights, and defend democracy.  YouTube has a clip:

It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.
– Wangari Maathai

Here’s an example of Wangari Maathai’s inspirational message – ‘I will be a hummingbird’ from the film, Dirt: The Movie:


Ai Weiwei: the unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail

The artist and human rights activist Ai Weiwei disappeared into detention on 3 April and no-one has heard from him since.  He was stopped from boarding a flight at Beijing airport last Sunday and escorted away by police, together with his friend Wan Tao.  Earlier that week, Ai announced that he was building a studio in Berlin, partially in response to the increasing pressure he faced in China.

Until Wednesday, the Chinese authorities refused to comment on his whereabouts, despite calls for his release from the UK, the United States and the European Union.  The artist’s detention is part of the toughest crackdown on activists and dissidents in China for a decade, with at least 24 people criminally detained, three more formally arrested for incitement to subversion and a dozen missing.

China is still fuming over the award last autumn of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo, the former professor who was at the forefront of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.  He was jailed in December 2009 for 11 years on subversion charges after co-authoring Charter 08, a manifesto that spread quickly on the Internet calling for political reform and greater rights in China.

Ominously, an editorial the other day in the state-run Global Times newspaper appeared to confirm the worst fears about Ai Weiwei:

Ai Weiwei […] has been close to the red line of Chinese law. As long as Ai Weiwei continuously marches forward, he will inevitably touch the red line one day. Ai Weiwei will be judged by history, but he will pay a price for his special choice.

Back in 1964 Bob Dylan wrote ‘Chimes of Freedom’ in which he summoned up the image of an electric storm, the thunder ‘tolling for the rebel, the rake, the luckless, the abandoned an’ forsaked, the outcast, burnin’ constantly at stake, and for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail’.  A year or so earlier, in ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, he had asked, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?

Last week, with Ai Weiwei ‘misplaced inside a jail’, Dylan meekly performed a set in Beijing which had been scrutinised, censored and approved by the Chinese Culture Ministry. He failed even to mention Ai Weiwei, and kowtowed to the Chinese authorities’ insistence that he not perform ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’.  Inexcusable.

Writing  in The Independent, Joan Smith noted that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have documented countless human rights abuses in China, and in 2008, the year of the Beijing Games, even the UK Foreign Office was compelled to list China among ‘major countries of concern’ in its annual human rights report. Yet the diplomatic and economic policy of cozying up to China continues, with, for example, David Cameron visiting Beijing on a trade mission during the furore over Liu’s Nobel Peace Prize.  Smith continues:

Guys, I have something to say to you: it’s not working. Beijing only has to throw a party and you all turn up as though Tiananmen Square never happened, so why should the regime change? Being nice to the hard-line Communists who rule China – awarding them the Games, muting public criticism, endlessly sending political and business leaders to shake hands with them – has had no measurable effect on human rights. Ordinary people in China are still denied the most basic freedoms, harassed by state security officials – Ai filmed them in his recent video – and disappearing into labour camps.

The arrests of recent weeks demonstrate not the Communist Party’s strength but its weakness. Its claims to power and popularity are so illegitimate that it dare not allow its critics to remain free…

This was Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light, strung across Exchange Flags during the Liverpool Biennial 2008, perhaps Liverpudlians favourite artwork in that year’s Biennial. An article in The Guardian last year explained how Ai’s attitude to authority was forged in his childhood experiences before and during the cultural revolution:

“I experienced humanity before I should. When I was very young,” he says. If that sounds grandiloquent, consider his history: Ai spent years of his childhood in a labour camp in the far north-west of China, on the edge of the Gobi desert. His father, Ai Qing, was an artist and one of China’s most revered modern poets, but fell foul of the late 1950s anti-rightist campaign. Life was precarious, and his parents had little time to spare for their offspring. “It was like being a little boy in the centre of a storm. Just always scared or surprised by surroundings that you cannot make sense of. And you have no comparisons because you have no memory of what another life can be,” he says.

Ai Qing, a cosmopolitan intellectual who had translated symbolist poets, spent years cleaning toilets. “Sometimes he shared stories with us, like his early [years] in Paris and the kind of paintings and artworks he liked – always things full of joy,” says Ai Weiwei. “But it had nothing to do with our surroundings – they were very tough. For years he wouldn’t take one day off. We always saw him as this very tired worker coming home with no energy; just having to lay down and sleep.”

To close, here’s Ai Weiwei in uncompromising mood in a photo posted on his blog, now shut down by the Chinese authorities.

 Footnote:  Ai Weiwei was finally released on 22 June, after 81 days in detention.

Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds at Tate Modern


We visited Tate Modern to see the Gauguin exhibition, but while we there I decided to take a look at the current installation in the Turbine Hall – Ai Weiwei’s Sunflower Seeds.  I have my doubts about this work.  It consists of 100 million porcelain, hand-painted sunflower seeds that took an entire factory of workers in the city of Jingdezhen, once famous for its production of imperial porcelain, more than two years to produce.

Most critics have been appreciative of this work.  I certainly appreciate Weiwei’s position as an artist experiencing state restrictions (for example, being prevented from leaving China during the week that Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  And I appreciate the interpretation placed on the exhibit by many art critics, perhaps best expressed by Andrew Graham-Dixon:

Why seeds of stone? A certain grim irony may be intended, a comment on life as it must be lived by most Chinese people. These are seeds that can never open, never grow into the million forms of life their form promises. Each represents a kind of stillborn existence, while it is the  fate of the whole mass of them to be – literally, in the act performed daily by the work’s audience – downtrodden.

But I can’t help visualising the dreadful daily monotony of those two years during which the female workers of that Chinese factory laboured at their hand-painting.  That certainly seems like a grim irony.

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo

Nobel Commitee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, left, and committee member Kaci Kullman Five place the Nobel Peace Prize medal and diploma on an empty chair representing Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo during the award ceremony in Oslo, December 10, 2010. This was the first time in 74 years the award was not handed over to the winner or a representative, because Liu is serving an 11-year sentence in China on subversion charges for urging sweeping changes to Beijing’s one-party communist political system.


You can read Andrew Graham-Dixon’s review in full here.  An earlier post about Ai Weiwei is here.  And I loved Ai Weiwei’s Web of Light at the 2008 Liverpool Biennial.