MS: As an activist yourself, and particularly as a woman, you have faced many obstacles — what helped you overcome them? Where did you find your strength and your courage that has sustained you throughout your crusade over all these years?
WM: I think that I was very helped by the fact that as I was growing up and as I was doing my basic studies, I studied primary in Kenya, then I went to the United States of America, as you know I was in the East and the mid-East, and then I spent some time in Europe. And this was in the sixties and there was a lot of civilized activities, especially in the United States of America, and in Europe there was a lot of student movements, it was during the times of the Vietnam War, and there was a lot of challenges that the students were putting forward. And so the other thing, is that I am very much part of that movement, and the spirit of wanting to change things, and wanting to see fairness and justice. And I think when I went back to Kenya I was really full of enthusiasm. And fortunately for me the more I observed resistance, the more I was encouraged. Because it was almost like, well, they don’t even understand what is happening in the rest of the world, and they are doing things that should have disappeared a long time ago, such as torture and violation of human rights, violation of women’s rights, destruction of the environment. I just felt that these are things that really should not be done. But I know that had I not left my home, had I not gone to other parts of the world and seen some of the efforts that were being made in other societies, I would probably have felt discouraged and abandoned the crusade.
I also think that having studied biology really helped me a lot because I quickly understand how biological systems work, and how they fail, and the tragedy of when they fail, because we are dealing with life systems, and when we hear that a species has become extinct, or is threatened, you realize that this could mean that this species will disappear from the face of the earth forever! So that understanding really gives you energy to do something to save it.
MS: Whenever I have heard you speak, even with your challenging work, you always seem to have this sense of joyfulness and hopefulness. Many people look out at the world and feel very pessimistic with all the troubles that are facing our world? Are you optimistic and how do you stay optimistic?
WM: Yes. I think you have to stay optimistic. Sometimes of course you feel very discouraged, and especially as you grow older and you feel like oh, my god — how long am I going to work on this issue before everybody understands it? You do sometimes feel very discouraged, but it’s also very important to remain optimistic and to see the silver lining in everything you do. Because no matter how sometimes things look difficult, and look like there is no hope, there is always a small glimmering of silver lining that is in everything, and I always look for that, and hang on that, and before I know it, another day comes and is gone.
MS: Do you think that we are moving to a point now where we are starting to see ourselves from a global perspective, see ourselves as one family sharing one home on planet earth, rather than by nations? You’re always visiting other countries. Do you think that’s a necessary shift, for us to realize our interdependence with each other and the earth, that everything we do is interconnected?
WM: Well, I think that there is a much greater awareness of that, both at the political level and also at the citizen level. But I also think that there are still a lot of people who feel scared and who feel like they should protect themselves. Today I was talking to students at the University here in Poznan. And one student stood up and asked me the question, and he said, “Well, I wonder whether we here in Poland should be concerned about the rest of the world or we should just close our borders and worry about the many difficult issues that we have here in Poland.” And that question of course was very interesting because it shows you that there are still people who feel like, “I have so many problems I have to deal with — why do I have to go and worry about problems that are far away from me.”
But unfortunately the truth of the matter is, I tried to explain to the students, unfortunately, first of all — you cannot close the borders because it is virtually impossible. Even the Berlin Wall eventually fell down. And today with technological advancement, with the Internet, with planes, with the rate at which we travel — even if you wanted, you cannot hide from the rest of the world. And whether you like it or not, you are part of this global marketplace, and so you might as well understand it, you might as well embrace it, because even if you hide, it will find you.
And this is why it is so important for people to understand that, especially this issue of climate change, it really does bring home the fact that we are on one planet, and that some of the impact of what human beings do in one corner of the world is going to affect people in a distant corner of the world. So we may still feel very far from each other, but we are really very close to each other because of the changes we have made with travel and technology and especially the information technology.
MS: I was thinking that part of the problem — even the concept of planting a tree, so many of us are living in cities and often feel disconnected from nature — I wonder how much that is involved, that our lack of environmental awareness has to do with this growing disconnect where are rarely out there interacting with or appreciating the earth, we keep getting further and further disconnected from our natural surroundings.
WM: That is very, very true. And as you know there is this global migration of people from the land and into the cities and unless government and city councils raise awareness and try to make sure that our children are not disconnected, that we have green spaces, that we have open areas in the city, that we try to bring as much of the countryside back into the city. Not only because we need it, but also because we don’t want lose that connectedness. Because if we do, then we shall continue to do things that undermine the very development that we are working for. Today I visited the mayor of Poznan, he’s very conscious of the need to protect green spaces in the city, the city must be very green. Right now it is bare because it is winter, but it must be very green. They have a lot of green spaces in the city and that’s very, very important for our children to not lose sight of the countryside.
Sometimes when I talk to little children I remind them of the fact that when I was growing up myself, I used to play with frog eggs and tadpoles and I used to walk in the field, I used to literally copy whatever my mother was doing on the land. And that may be the reason why I eventually developed the passion for green and for the Earth. So it is extremely important for adults and especially those who are in charge of cities to make sure that we do not lose touch with the land and with the environment. And especially our children.
MS: I interviewed one of your fellow laureates and co-founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, Betty Williams. And we have a column by the Nobel Women’s Initiative at the web site I run Feminist.com, called United For Peace. How would you describe the sisterhood that exists between the fellow women Nobel Laureates and your work uniting to improve the situation in the world?
WM: Yes, I think it’s wonderful that Sherin and Betty Williams — they came to Nairobi in 2004 shortly after my name was announced for 2004 and this idea was spoke and it has grown by leaps and bounds. And it’s just wonderful for us to, as we go on our own separate ways, pushing our own separate agendas, that sometimes we are able to come together and to work on an issue that we all feel strongly about. So it has been very fruitful.
MS: How do you view the situation for women and girls around the world today? I was watching World Focus recently and they were talking about the situation for women in Rwanda and how so many women are now part of Parliament, and they quoted this Rwandan official as saying that “women are the best agents for social transformation.” That sounds hopeful, but still in many parts of the world women are oppressed and suffering from horrible forms of injustice and violence.
WM: Well, I think that sometimes we romanticize the role that the women can play, because women in many countries of the world, women are still not in charge. They are still not playing a very important role in decision making. But sometimes when women do find themselves in those positions, we really don’t see that much difference. And I have always felt that perhaps women have sometimes almost embraced the same values as men, and the same character as men, because they are in the men’s world, and they are trying to fit into a system that men have created. And maybe in truth when there is a critical mass of women who play that role in governments such as what we have in Rwanda, then we will see whether women can really manage power in a way that is less destructive than the way that men have used power. But having said that, I want to say that whenever there are conflicts as you know in Rwanda, or in the DRC right now is the focus, women are so vulnerable and many times they are used by men, they are violated, because men are trying to hurt other men by violating their women.
This is why in fact Jody and I, we were joined by other women including Mia Farrow, the actress, and we went to the Darfur region on the Chad side to visit the women in the refugee camps. And it was so horrific to hear the stories of how women are violated by men, using rape, as they say, as a weapon of war. So as long as we have all these conflicts, it is the women who will continue to suffer, so that is one reason why I guess as women we should really work for peace, because we know how painful wars can be to us and our daughters.
MS: President Barack Obama’s father was born in Kenya. How do Kenyans feel about his election? There must be a great sense of pride.
WM: I know that Kenyans are extremely happy for his victory. We definitely are very happy. You should have seen the celebrations in Kenya — the President declared the day he was elected a national holiday so we didn’t have to work on that day! And we are definitely very happy. And I’m hoping that not only Kenya, but the whole of Africa will take advantage of that victory and try to create a better environment for their children and bring an end to conflict, so that their children can be able to exploit their potential the way that Barack Obama has. Because I had an article in The Guardian where I said, what would have happened had he grown up, say, in Africa and was exposed to all these conflicts and wars and misery — would he have been able to exploit his full potential? And I think it is a big challenge for Africa. They spend so much of their time fighting each other and denying their children the opportunity to exploit their full potential. But in the meantime, I hope that Kenyans will take advantage of the opportunities Obama brings. Businessmen, I hope that a lot of Americans will come and invest in Kenya, and I hope a lot of Americans will be able to come as tourists to see where some of his roots are, and that is a great opportunity. You know, it can only be good!
MS: I actually read that you had met Barack Obama and had planted a tree with him a few years back.
WM: Yes, who would have thought! We were very happy when he came and we knew that he had been following the issues in Kenya, and especially when we were working for the pro-democracy movement, and so we asked him to come and plant a tree at the place which has become symbolic as a symbol of our struggle for pro-democracy movement in Kenya. At that time of course, we were celebrating the fact that he was a Senator, and people were saying that he’s a young man who has a lot of potential in the future, so of course — who would have known! And so it’s wonderful to have planted a tree. So when he won, we went back to the same place and we planted another tree to celebrate his victory, not too far from the one he planted — which was doing very well, by the way.
MS: Do you remember what your impressions were of Barack Obama at the time? Could you have visualized his future?
WM: Well, at that time I was not looking at a future President, I was looking at a very handsome young man, with a wonderful family. He brought his family with him and he struck me as obviously very sensitive, a very strong family man. He was also very likeable, it was very easy for him to interact with the people, because wherever we went people would literally follow him, and it was easy for him to engage. When we were planting that tree, we had not actually announced it, but many people would come, and before no time, there was a big crowd that was waiting for him to speak to them. And you could see that he has this appeal for the people, and he had an easy way of engaging the people. So not surprising that he was able to mobilize America.