Georgiana Keable has been pioneer for the renaissance of storytelling in England and Norway. In 2002 she started ‘The Storytelling House’ with tellers from 3 continents. Georgiana has taught storytelling at Oslo University for 18 years. She launched the Norwegian storytelling festival, now in its 12th year. Georgiana tells stories reflecting our relation with nature. Often outside, walking and sensing the forest, the weather and the sea. She also walks, sleeping in a hammock and collecting stories from strangers about how people and nature are connected. In 2015 she received the Oslo prize for outstanding contribution to Art in Oslo.
I came across Wangari Maathai in my hometown of Oslo the year before she received the Nobel Peace Prize. An African women’s organisation made a party to celebrate her and asked me to tell a story. I told my favorite African story, the story of a tree. All I remember is that she was an incredible listener. Warmth and humour and generosity were streaming out of her, which makes it so easy to tell.
Years later I was developing a day for 12-year-old children in the forests of Norway. I thought, fantastic, I can tell Wangari’s story. I used her book Unbowed as inspiration, but it was together with the children, out in the forest, that it really developed.
It’s part of a project called ‘The voice of the forest’ where I go into role as Marianne North, a fearless adventurer and botanist, contemporary of Darwin. I stop in an area which has been clear cut, destroying the biological diversity of the area and I tell them this tale about a woman who was seen as so dangerous she was imprisoned and harassed time and again. The story has been told to thousands of children over the last two years. They remember it.
Feared and hunted for her green belt
Do you know how big Africa is? Big! So enormous that the whole of India could fit in it, plus the whole of North America and most of Europe!
Over a hundred and thirty years ago the powerful European countries took a map of Africa, cut it up and shared it out as if it was an enormous Pizza. France, you take this slice. Germany, you can have that bit, Britain, this. Do you think they asked the African people? No. They just grabbed Africa.
Britain got a huge and luxuriant country called Kenya. And there in Kenya in 1930, a child was born. Just an ordinary African child, born in a round house made of earth. As soon as she was born three women came in with gifts. One was carrying a sweet potato, the second had blue sugar cane, the third woman brought sweet corn. The new mother took juice from all these and dripped it into the mouth of the newborn baby. So the first thing the baby tasted was not mother’s milk, but the fruits of the earth. The baby was given the name of an African goddess – Wangari.
Wangari’s Dad was tall and clever. He was a car mechanic. He was so strong that when he needed to change the wheel on a car he just lifted up the whole car, took out the old wheel and slung in a new one. Wangari’s mum was also tall and no-one ever heard her say an angry word.
At that time in Kenya a man who was rich enough could marry several women, as long as he promised to look after all his children. So Wangari had one dad and four mothers. She called them, Big Mum; Mum; Little Mum and Younger Mum. She also had lots of sisters and brothers to play with.
When she was seven years old her father said; ‘Wangari, your mother and I want your brothers to go to school and there is no school here. So you will go to your grandparent’s village where there is a school and you will help your mother.’
When they got to her new village Wangari stared wide-eyed. All around the village was the most beautiful forest she had ever seen. Her grandmother hugged her and said; ‘Wangari, go out and play in the rain, then you will grow as tall as the trees!’
Wangari was only seven but she had to work hard. She planted seeds, looked after her younger sister and brother, washed clothes and made food. In the forest she fetched firewood but her mum said she should never take wood from the fig tree because that was God’s tree. She promised, but she often played beside the fig tree because of the fresh water bubbling up and little frogs hopping around. Wangari loved the forest.
One day, as she was serving a dish of steaming Ugali to her big brother he said; ‘Mum, why doesn’t Wangari go to school?’ ‘Now that’s a good question my son!’ said her mum and sure enough, soon Wangari became the first girl in the family to go to school.
On her very first school-day Wangari’s cousin walked with her. ‘Can you read and write, Wangari?’ he asked. ’No, I can’t,’ she said. He proudly took out a pencil and wrote a big W on his book, and then he took out a rubber and rubbed it out. ‘Wow!’ Wangari was impressed and decided that she would learn this kind of magic. Wangari worked hard at school and on her last day, she got a shock. She had won the prize as the cleverest pupil in the whole school!
Her mum said; ‘Wangari, we have decided that you will go on to the High School. It’s far away, but be brave, it’s for the future.’
So Wangari set off alone. Her sack was light for she had only one dress to carry, a present from her brother. No shoes, she didn’t get shoes until she was fifteen.
The new school was run by nuns. Many of the nuns had come from Europe and Wangari thought how kind they were to leave their homes and help the girls in Kenya. However some of the nuns were very strict. The girls were never allowed to speak their own language – their mother tongue. If they did they were forced to wear the badge which said ‘I am stupid, I spoke my mother tongue today.’ Sometimes Wangari worried that she might not understand what her grandmother said when she finally went home, but luckily she still dreamed in her own language.
At this time a terrible revolution began in Kenya. Over the years so many unfair things had happened. Many Kenyan men had fought bravely in the Second World War. When they came home, their farms had been given away. They were given to British soldiers! How unfair. Their country had been taken away and now even their farms. This was the final straw and a revolution broke out.
At her school Wangari was sheltered from violence and the girls were told that the African revolutionaries were wrong. When the last day of school came, again she was shocked.
‘Wangari,’ said her friends, ‘You are the cleverest girl in the whole school! You could be a nurse, or even a teacher, what will you be?’
‘Neither,’ said Wangari. ‘I will go on studying. I want to learn everything there is to know about nature – forests, animals and birds!’
‘What?’ said her friends. ‘Don’t be ridiculous Wangari, you are not a man.’
After all these hard years, Kenya would soon become a free country. This Wangari could do just what she wanted. The president of America sponsored the cleverest young students to support the new country. For five and a half years she studied in America.
After all that time, you can imagine how excited she was on the long boat ride home over the ocean.
At last, nearing the coastline she saw a big group of people singing and as she drew nearer she could see more and more of her family. Big Mum, Mum! Little Mum, Daddy, grandmother, all the sisters and brothers! As she ran down the gangplank she was crying with happiness.
But her family stared at her and said; ‘Wangari, what is wrong, you are so thin! Don’t they have proper food in America? Why have they been starving you?’ Wangari laughed, ‘Don’t you know it’s fashionable in America to be skinny and thin, not like Kenya where it’s beautiful to be big and gorgeous.‘
Wangari soon got a job at the university but she still kept studying nature. After some years she became a Professor. She was the very first woman professor in the whole of Central and East Africa. By this time she had saved enough money to buy herself a car. There were not many women in Kenya who had their own car and she was so excited to drive out to the village where her grandparents lived.
Even before she had arrived she stopped the car. She was confused, staring at the landscape which she knew so well. How could it be? The great beautiful green forest was gone. Instead she saw mile upon mile of tea and coffee bushes.
Her heart pounding, she approached her family house and saw a beloved figure sitting outside. ‘Grandmother,’ she called,
‘Where is the forest? What happened?’
‘Money, my child,’ said her grandmother sadly. ‘They have cut the forest for money. Don’t they see that money will never give us shade against the hot sun? Money cannot be burned on our cooking fire. Don’t they see that money is no home to the birds of the forest, for Mother Elephant or Brother Monkey? Money will not stop the earth from washing away in the floods or bring sweet rain for our crops.’
Water! The land was so dry. Wangari ran to the fig tree where she used to play, God’s tree. Where it had stood was a dried old stump and without it the clear delicious water and the little frogs were gone too. Wangari knew now that the fig tree has a root that goes so deep it always finds the water, but it was gone and the land was dry. She looked around at the children of the village and saw many who looked hungry and unwell. ‘Yes child,’ said her grandmother. ‘People use the money to buy white bread and sweets for their children, they no longer grow the good vegetables and they can no longer pick the fruits and nuts of the forest.’
Wangari was so angry. She got into her car and drove straight back into the city. Straight to the government building and took the lift up to the forestry department.
‘I want to plant trees. No, I am going to plant a forest!’ she said to the forestry minister. ‘Well Professor Wangari, I know you are very clever, but how can you plant a whole forest?’
‘It’s simple,’ she said. ‘The people of Kenya will help me.’ The forestry minister saw a chance to get some free labour so he promised her all the young saplings she could plant.
Then Wangari began to write in the newspapers, she spoke on the radio and in the lecture halls saying; ‘Cutting down our forest is destroying our beautiful Kenya. It’s making our children hungry and our animals and birds are losing their homes. But there is a simple solution. Help me to plant trees!’
Sure enough hundreds of women listened to her words and came to help her plant trees. In fact soon they had planted all the saplings the forestry minister had to give her.
Then Wangari said,’ We have run out of trees but listen! You women are experts at planting vegetables. Now you will plant trees.‘ So they found nuts, berries and other tree seeds and little by little they learnt. They learnt to scarify, soak, stratify and plant the seeds, and to care for the tiny trees so that no-one trod on them and no stray goat ate them. A great new forest grew up. Wangari and her friends called this work the Green Belt movement because they were planting long green belts of forest over the whole of Kenya.
Meanwhile Wangari was determined to protect the forest that remained. When she heard that an old forest was in danger she went with groups of young students and they stood bravely before the bulldozers and the chain saws. The rich men who owned these forests were furious.
‘This woman is dangerous!’ they said. ‘She is a disgrace. She has no shame and leads women and young people to violence.
Tomorrow she will turn them against their husbands and fathers. No man will be safe. She must be stopped.’ They started to lie about her in the newspapers, to threaten her and at last they arrested her and sent her to prison. Again and again she was locked up for protecting forests and people.
Why did these men see her as so dangerous? Protecting the trees she was protecting the air, protecting the nuts and the fruits. She was protecting the shade which trees give from the burning sun, protecting the earth which washes away when trees are cut. She was protecting the firewood to make food and protecting the homes for the birds and animals of the forest.
Do you think Wangari gave up? Never. One day she got a letter in the post. It was from Norway, she had won perhaps the highest honour a person can receive in this world. She had been given the Nobel Peace Prize. She and the thousands of women and men who had helped her were proud. Together they kept planting trees.