The Cracked Mirror

Wangari Maathai, Kenya

1940 - 2011

Founder of The Green Belt Movement & Nobel Peace Prize Winner

(Submitted by The Office of Wangari Maathai)

Mount Kenya used to be a holy mountain for my people, the Kikuyus. They believed that their God dwelled on the mountain and that everything good - the rains and clean drinking water - flowed from it. As long as they saw the clouds (the mountain is a very shy mountain, usually hiding behind clouds), they knew they would get rain.

And then the missionaries came. With all due respect to the missionaries - they are the ones who really taught me - in their wisdom, or lack of it, they said, “God does not dwell on Mount Kenya. God dwells in heaven.”

We have been looking for heaven, but we haven’t found it. Men and women have gone to the moon and back and have not seen heaven. Heaven is not above us: it is right here, right now. So the Kikuyu people were not wrong when they said that God dwelled on the mountain, because if God is omnipresent, as theology teaches us, then God is on Mount Kenya too. If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that’s okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests.

After working with different Kenyan communities for more than two decades, the Green Belt Movement which I founded in 1977 also concluded that culture should be incorporated into any development paradigm that has at its heart the welfare of the people. We realised that some of the communities had lost aspects of their culture which had actually facilitated the conservation of that beautiful environment which the first European explorers and missionaries recorded in their diaries and textbooks.

Culture is an important part of humanity. Too often, when we talk about conservation, we don’t think about culture. But we human beings have evolved in the environment in which we find ourselves. For every one of us, wherever we were, the environment shaped us: it shaped our values; it shaped our bodies; it shaped our religion. It really defined who we are and how we see ourselves.

By the end of the civic and environmental seminars organised by the Green Belt Movement, participants feel the time has come for them to hold up their own mirror and find out who they are. This is why we call the seminars kwimenya (self-knowledge). Until then, participants have looked through someone else’s mirror - the mirror of the missionaries or their teachers or the colonial authorities who have told them who they are and who write and speak about them - at their own cracked reflections. They have seen only a distorted image, if they have seen themselves
at all!

A new attitude toward nature provides space for a new attitude toward culture and the role it plays in sustainable development: an attitude based on a new understanding - that self-identity, self-respect, morality, and spirituality play a major role in the life of a community and its capacity to take steps that benefit it and ensure its survival.

Of course, no one culture is applicable to all human beings who wish to retain their self-respect and dignity; none can satisfy all communities. Humanity needs to find beauty in its diversity of
cultures and accept that there will be many languages, religions, attires, dances, songs, symbols, festivals and traditions. This diversity should be seen as a Universal Heritage of Humankind.

Only when communities recapture those positive aspects of their culture which have been eroded through colonialism or other factors, will people re-learn how to love themselves and what is theirs. Only then will they really appreciate their country and the need to protect its natural beauty and wealth. And only then will they have a true understanding of the future and the generations to come.

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