MS: What would you want to be saying to Obama regarding the world view?
WM: Well, I think that he has a very good world view, and I support his vision for cleaner energies and other sources of energy, moving away from fossil fuels. I hope that he will pursue that. It seemed like something that he wants to commit to, because I know that we need American leadership in this issue. And as you know, President Bush did not sign the Kyoto Protocol and so for a long time many governments just decided, well if America is not going to subscribe, forget it. And indeed it didn’t go very far. We need America. And my understanding right here is that America is still not giving us a lot of leadership, so I really hope that a new message will come from President Obama when he takes over.
MS: The work of The Green Belt Movement has grown and evolved so much over the years. What is its current focus and work?
WM: The current focus is mainly to continue encouraging people to manage their land in a sustainable way, to protect soil erosion, to plant trees. The majority of people still use firewood as their major source of energy. But also to protect degraded forests and to make sure that forests that are still standing are protected. And to continue sharing this experience with others within the region and beyond. That’s really what we are trying to do.
And at the moment, I am also in conversation with the University of Nairobi, we would like to have the experience shared by students of the University so that when students from relevant faculties such as the faculty of agriculture, faculty of veterinary science, faculty of departments such as environmental studies — when these students come out, that they do not only have the knowledge, but they have some experiential learning where they can come and work with The Green Belt Movement and really learn that you cannot protect forests, you cannot protect the land, you cannot protect the environment just by having knowledge alone. You have to take action. You have to take action. And sometimes action means digging a hole, planting a tree, making sure that the trees are protected, making sure that our rivers remain clean, that the lakes are clean. But just having the knowledge, sometimes it doesn’t help. Just having the knowledge and going into the office and shuffling papers does not protect the environment. We need action.
MS: There seems to be a lot of focus lately on the problems in Africa. They say that Africa is the cradle of civilization. How do you see the relationship of Africa to the rest of the world?
WM: Well, I think that Africa sometimes is just romanticized, but when it comes to really committing resources, you don’t see it as much as one would want to see it. But I also think that African leadership has failed Africa in that the leadership has not committed itself to really working for the welfare of the people of Africa. And proving that indeed when they are assisted, that their assistance is used for the purpose for which it was given. As you know, we have been fighting for many years to have the debts of Africa canceled, we have tried to show that indeed these debts have been paid several times over, and we have tried to say that African governments are not able to provide some of the most basic needs to their people. The need for education, the need for healthcare, even sometimes food, shelter — these basic needs are not available to the African people. And nobody would listen, especially in the year 2000, remember we had this campaign, 2000 global campaign, to try to persuade governments to cancel the debts of poor countries. They wouldn’t.
But at the moment, when we are seeing the amount of money that is made available to businesses because they are threatened. Well, countries like many countries in Africa became bankrupt a long time ago but nobody has even bothered to help them by canceling the debt. So sometimes there is that romantic reference to Africa, but not a real commitment. But I want to blame the world, but I also want to say that African leadership has also failed because quite often they have been found wanting in practicing good governance, responsible governance, free of corruption and misuse of the resources that are available. So that is the way that I would put it.
MS: You travel so much and work so tirelessly, what do you do to nourish and recharge yourself? How do you relax? How do you keep yourself centered so that you can do the important work that you do?
WM: Well, I think what you do is you learn to relax in between those meetings, you do have time in the hotels between meetings and in the planes. And you just learn to relax, because that’s the one time when you have time to read, you have time to reflect, you have time, as you say, to nourish. And even in a meeting like this [Poznan Climate Change Conference], you are not talking all the time, and the good thing about it is that in a meeting like this you have some of the best minds in the field and you have time to just sit back in the room and just listen. And it’s wonderful. So if you are careful, if you plan your work, you do find the time to nourish yourself.
MS: I was reading a recent article about you and there was this intriguing quote of yours: “You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself, values itself, that understands itself.” What did you mean by that?
WM: It was my effort of trying to express something that I’ve been trying to share especially at home through environmental education — to say that you have to know yourself, and that once you know yourself, then you cannot be bound by — because sometimes we are bound by other people’s thoughts, because we are not sure about ourselves. But once you know yourself… I guess it is really an expression of the biblical statements that the truth will make you free! When you know, then you are free, your mind is free.
MS: Do you have a spiritual philosophy or way of looking at life that helps to guide you in terms of your own journey?
WM: Yeah, I think that in many ways I have the Christian spirituality which I very much shared from my teachers, who were mostly missionaries, and they gave me a lot of that information. And probably the greatest lesson they gave me is not so much what they were talking about, as the way they lived. I really admired their sense of service, sense of self-giving and when I look back, that’s what was probably the greatest lesson. I may not remember all the religious dogmas and teachings that they were very busy teaching — but the way they lived. They were honest, they were hard working, they were compassionate — they really gave the best of themselves. By the time I met them, they were maybe a little younger than my mother, many of them have now departed, but in my mind they are some of the most beautiful women that I have ever met. Truly committed. And I think that one thing that they taught me, by the way they lived, and that I still value very, very much, is that sense of service.
MS: What is your wish for the children of the future?
Note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in O, The Oprah Magazine.
This article originally appeared at The Huffington Post.
Marianne Schnall is a widely published journalist whose writings and interviews have appeared in a variety of media outlets such as The Huffington Post, The Women’s Media Center, Glamour Magazine, and O, The Oprah Magazine. She is also the co-founder and executive director of the women’s web site and non-profit organization Feminist.com, as well as the co-founder of the environmental site EcoMall.com. Her new book, based on her interviews with a variety of well-known women, is titled “Daring to Be Ourselves: Influential Women Share Insights on Courage, Happiness and Finding Your Own Voice”.