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A Pioneering African Environmentalist's Legacy Lives On

By Bob Seay   |   Thursday, October 13, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Oct. 14, 2011

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai with Linda Harrar in 1989 in Nairobi's Karura Forest, Kenya. (Jill Singer)

BOSTON — Last week, three African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia; a peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who helped to end Liberia's 14-year civil war, and human rights activist and journalist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, who has been called "the Mother of the Revolution" in that country.

These three women follow in the footsteps of another pioneering African woman leader.

Making History

Last month, the world heard news of the death of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai (pronounced wan-GAR-ee mah-THI), who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the leader of the Green Belt Movement, a women-led effort to plant trees.

Using segments from an interview in WGBH's Media Archive from the 1990 series Race to Save the Planet, former Nova producer Linda Harrar offered this personal remembrance.

"The first time I met Wangari Maathai, in 1988 in Nairobi, Kenya, she was a little reluctant to be interviewed. She shook her head and said, 'I get into a lot of trouble because I have a very big mouth!' Then she burst into laughter, flashing her unforgettable smile," Harrar said.

A Vision Is Born

As a strong critic of the government, and a courageous fighter for the environment, Maathai did get into a lot of trouble over the years because of her outspokeness. During the 1980s, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi labeled the Green Belt Movement "subversive." Maathai was arrested, beaten unconscious and thrown in jail for her protests to save parks and forests from development. But she managed to capture the attention of the world, and through her willingness to put her own life on the line, won many of her most important battles.

Maathai started her career wanting to work on preventing childhood malnutrition. In the process, she realized soil erosion was one of the root causes, and that planting trees would be key to solving it.

In the 1990 WGBH series Race to Save the Planet, Maathai said, "I know for certain that the soil is the sustainer of life. Without it, we cannot live. On this continent, we have seen too much suffering, starvation, due to degradation of the soil, and it has taken millions of years to build this topsoil. It is so important to protect it, because if we don't, we are on our way to the end."

Bringing Home The Brains

While Maathai received some of her education in the United States, afterwards she returned to live in Kenya for the rest of her life. Linda Harrar recalled why this was important to Maathai.

"Wangari hated the 'brain drain' of Africa's brightest students being lured away from home, and she believed that Africans need to develop their own leaders to solve the continent's problems," Harrar said. "But she also understood the need for foreign aid to get some promising programs started."

After earning her PhD in Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which organized communities of poor women to plant trees and tend to them until they were strong. The women earned a small income for doing this work, in a land where jobs are very hard to find. The Green Belt Movement also taught children to grow green belts around their schools. And it taught farmers to plant trees in rows between their crops, which helps to restore nutrients to the soil.

Dr. Wangari Maathai in 2007 at a garden dedication at the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago. (via Flickr/Creative Commons)


Making The Mission Possible

Maathai wanted her movement to start with planting trees because it is something that anyone can do. The universality, she said, would help people access the movement.

"Then during the tree-planting campaign, you bring out all the other issues that are very much related: the issues of food production, firewood crisis, soil erosion. All these are part and parcel of what we are discussing, but when we first discuss, we start with the immediate problems, the local problems, the problems we can see every day," Maathai said.

Harrar says the movement planted over 30 million trees.

"Maathai would sometimes say that the healing of Africa is still only a dream. But she understood her own power to inspire people, of all ages and cultures to get behind her," Harrar said.

Maathai also had her human moments of doubt.

"Sometimes I get very discouraged because the problems are just enormous, and although the people are very willing, sometimes they really think that you can solve all these problems at once, and you can't," Maathai said. "But sometimes I also get very encouraged, especially when I see these trees growing in the nursery, or when they're so big that you see the farmers happy in their fields. It's very satisfying. So I go up and down all the time. And most of the time, I think I'm on the better side."

Crossing The 'Vale Of Tears'

What did Harrar find most striking about Wangari Maathai's work?

"Perhaps what I admired so much was Wangari's ability to keep fighting for what she believed in – and to inspire others not to lose heart. I last saw her just after 9/11, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was comforting us as Americans for all that we had lost when the Twin Towers fell. One of her best friends had lost a daughter. She of course knew that life can be what she called 'a vale of tears,' but she would always find a way to find strength in what she believed in," Harrar said.

Maathai reflected on why the work mattered so much to her.

"I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me there is a problem and I have got to do something about it, so I'm doing something about it," Maathai said. "I think that that is what I would call the God in me. And all of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. And it must be this voice that is telling me to do something. And I'm sure it's the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet, at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet!" Maathai said.

Linda Harrar said Wangari Maathai's legacy should serve as a source of inspiration for all of us.

"So here's an idea. If you're feeling sad or depressed, or cynical about the many problems of the world, think of Wangari Maathai's example: Get out and plant a tree, get your kids to plant a tree. It's something you can do for the future. And it would make Wangari smile that dazzling smile," Harrar said.

Remembering Steven Paul Jobs

By Bob Seay   |   Wednesday, October 5, 2011
2 Comments   2 comments.

Oct. 6, 2011

steve jobs

Steve Jobs in 1990. (via WGBH Open Vault)

 

BOSTON — With the loss of Steve Jobs, we have our own remembrance of him, in a superb WGBH interview from 1990. It's from a series called The Machine That Changed The World, a BBC-TV/WGBH Boston Co-Production. In it, Jobs talks about how that revolutionary device, the Macintosh personal computer, came to be and the particular gifts of the people who made it.

Here are some excerpts from the extended interview with Steve Jobs conducted for that series:

Steve Jobs: "I think the Macintosh was created by a group of people who felt that there wasn't a strict division between science and art. Or in other words, that mathematics is really a liberal art if you look at it from a slightly different point of view. And why can't we interject typography into computers. Why can't we have computers talking to us in English language? And looking back, five years later, this seems like a trivial observation. But at the time it was cataclysmic in its consequences. And the battles that were fought to push this point of view out the door were very large."

Jobs talked about the people on his design team and what they were like.

Steve Jobs as seen in his 1990 WGBH interview. (via WGBH Open Vault)

Jobs: "My observation is that the doers are the major thinkers. The people that really create the things that change this industry are both the 'thinker-doer' in one person. And if we really go back and we examine, did Leonardo [da Vinci] have a guy off to the side that was thinking five years out in the future what he would paint or the technology he would use to paint it? Of course not. Leonardo was the artist but he also mixed all his own paints. He also was a fairly good chemist. He knew about pigments, knew about human anatomy. And combining all of those skills together, the art and the science, the thinking and the doing, was the exceptional result."

"And there is no difference in our industry. It's very easy to say, 'oh I thought of this three years ago.' But usually when you dig a little deeper, you find that the people that really did it were also the people that really worked through the hard intellectual problems as well."

On Feb. 10, 1982, the Mac design group had a small party. Along with their cake and champagne, they each signed a large sheet of paper. Jobs had those signatures copied and engraved into the mold for the Macintosh case.

Another frame of Steve Jobs in his 1990 WGBH interview. (via WGBH Open Vault)

Jobs: "The people that worked on it consider themselves and I certainly consider them artists. These are the people that under different circumstances would be painters and poets but because of the time that we live in this new medium has appeared, in which to express one's self to one's fellow species and that's a medium of computing and so a lot of people that would have been artists and scientists have gone into this field to express their feeling, so it seemed like the right thing to do."

If you're the owner of a Mac128K, 512K, or Macintosh Plus, they signed your computer, too. When the new machine was presented at a shareholders meeting in early 1984, the design team was there.

Jobs: "The first few rows had all the people that worked on the Mac. About a 150 people that really made it happen were all seated in the first few rows and when it was introduced, after we went through it all and had the computer speak to people itself and things like that, the whole auditorium of about twenty five hundred people gave it a standing ovation and the whole first few rows of Mac folks were all just crying. All of us were. I was biting my tongue very hard because I had a little bit more to do. But it was a very, very emotional moment because it was no longer ours. From that day forward it was no longer ours. We couldn't change it. If we had a good idea the following day it was too late. It belonged to the world at that point in time."

You can view the entire unedited 45-minute Steve Jobs video interview on the WGBH Open Vault. Please be patient, the interview doesn't start immediately.

Skip Gates And Ilan Stavans

Thursday, April 21, 2011
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Legendary Activist Dolores Huerta

Thursday, March 24, 2011
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Fukushima Crisis Puts New Eyes On MIT Nuclear Reactor

By Phillip Martin   |   Monday, March 21, 2011
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Mar. 21, 2011


BOSTON — Japan’s frantic effort to cool down a damaged nuclear facility has thrust nuclear power reactors back into the public’s imagination here in the United States. That’s bringing attention to New England's Pilgrim and Vermont Yankee plants — but also to a little-noticed reactor in Massachusetts.

The MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

The MIT Nuclear Research Laboratory is a building in Cambridge with a blue-domed cylinder. It’s the second-largest of the country’s 26 university-based research reactors, but many passersby aren’t familiar with it.
 
“I’ve never noticed that. That’s scary,” said Patrick Jean Baptiste, as he walks home from work.
 
He’s one of several people walking through Kendall Square who don’t know about the reactor. But some of them aren’t the least concerned after learning what it is, like a tall, lanky man named David.
 
“What I’ve heard is that MIT does a pretty good job of keeping a close eye on it and using it for certain types of experiments that aren’t so threatening,” David said. 
 
The reactor is a tank-type reactor. Cooled by light water, it uses heavy water as a reflector. It should not be compared with the Fukushima reactor in Japan. It’s considerably smaller and has a fuel inventory about 1,000 times less than that of a commercial nuclear power plant.
 
The facility was the subject of an ABC News investigation in 2005. At that time, reporter Brian Ross concluded that because there are no metal detectors or searches or significant guard presence, the facility is vulnerable.
 
The director of the lab, Dr. David Moncton, says that should not be a safety concern.
 
“Workers at this facility wear badges to detect radiation levels. The fact that outside this building, there is no visible armed guard presence should not concern anyone,” Moncton said.
 
Moncton said he wasn’t comfortable detailing exactly how the laboratory is safe-guarded.
 
“It’s not a good idea to advertise the ways in which you’re secure. We don’t have armed guards but we’ve got a lot of guards close by if we need them,” Moncton said.
 
He said the facility is secured in other ways, too.
 
“Whether it’s a truck bomb or an airplane that falls out of the sky and hits our containment shell, we’ve studied all of those potential calamities, we’re pretty comfortable, and the nuclear regulators commission is comfortable that this is a safe operation and presents no risk,” Moncton said.
 
The MIT nuclear reactor is closely associated with Cambridge's emergency planning authorities, including fire and police departments. And the Cambridge City Council periodically looks at the safety measures surrounding the MIT reactor.

Dr. David Moncton, the director of the MIT Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, says he's confident the facility is secure. (Phillip Martin/WGBH)

Still, Cambridge City Councilor Sam Siedel, a staunch defender of the city’s academic institutions, is concerned about the lab’s presence in a full, urban area.
 
“It’s obviously a wonderful opportunity from the academic perspective about things you can do in terms of learning and studying,” Siedel said. “But the idea that these things exist right in the middle of a very dense population here in Cambridge and of course, right across the river is Boston, you know, I think we really ought to look at that,” Siedel said.
 
Siedel says he will pursue a Council resolution directing the Cambridge City manager “to confer with the universities to get a full report on all the activities and the safety precautions and measures they have in place to deal with all types of unintended outcomes that might happen around a nuclear reactor,” Siedel said.
 
On the streets of Cambridge, local designer Enrita Siegal is happy to hear that. “With everything going on in Japan, I have been more concerned about nuclear power and hoping that everything is being well taken care of here,” Siegal said.
 
But the MIT reactor should be put into perspective, counters Christine Jesstrup, a masseuse passing through Central Square.
 
“I know that MIT has a reactor. I mean, they’ve got nuclear physicists over there. I think the track record on nuclear is not that bad. And I wonder if paper cuts by a thousand coal plants and oil is maybe worse,” Jesstrup said.
 
Among other advances, the MIT facility has a track record of helping to develop methods of fighting brain cancer with radiation. But some Cambridge residents, like Baptiste, remain skeptical.
 
“You can’t trust these people. They tell you you’re safe.  But you can’t believe what they’re saying. You know, anything can happen,” Baptiste said.
 
All parties concerned hope that a new safety audit by the Cambridge City Council might help assuage doubts and fears about the nuclear facility in their midst.

Boston-Area Egyptians Look Ahead With Resolve

By Jess Bidgood   |   Monday, February 14, 2011
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Feb. 14, 2011

Tom Arabia, an activist living in Roslindale, hugged a friend as Egyptians and supporters gathered at MIT to celebrate the departure of 30-year President Hosni Mubarak on Friday. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)


BOSTON — This weekend began a new chapter for the people of Egypt. After President Hosni Mubarak stepped down after 30 years in power on Friday morning, the people of Cairo celebrated – and then took to the streets to clean Tahrir Square, the main center of the 18 days of protests that forced him out. The Egyptian military scheduled elections for six months from now as some holdout protesters kept up demands of democracy and security. And Egyptians began to take in what it all means for their country.

Murad Alim photographed Fatma Elshobokshy, an Egyptian who works at Lesley University. He's creating a Facebook album for people in Egypt to see. (Jess Bidgood/ WGBH)

The thousands of Egyptians living in the Boston area joined their countrymen in processing the joy, challenges and questions left behind by the Egyptian revolution.

For some 100 or so Egyptians and supporters, that process began at MIT, where a forum originally planned to examine the ongoing protests there morphed into a party. Egyptians wore pins that proudly professed their nationality; adults hugged and children scampered at their ankles. People squeezed in to celebrate, mixing Arabic and English, laughter and tears.
 
Karim Elembabi, a 24-year-old with piercing green eyes who studies psychology at Bunker Hill Community College, was still stunned by the news of Mubarak’s departure. He said no one expected it to happen after Mubarak refused to step down in a speech he made Thursday.

“I woke up today, with my brother shouting, like, ‘Karim Karim Karim, he’s gone, he stepped down, come see the TV!’“ Elembabi said he turned on CNN, pulled up Al Jazeera on his computer, and tried to reach a friend in Cairo. “He Skyped me right away, like, ‘It’s happening, dude.’”
 
Elembabi left Egypt several years ago, never wanting to return because he didn’t think he could be free there. But over the past few weeks, he couldn’t stand being so far away from the protests. “Two, three weeks, I really can’t focus well. My mind, what’s going on in Egypt, what’s happened to my friends,” he recalled.
 
For Elembabi, part of celebrating the idea of a new Egypt was just getting used to it. “For me, what happened in Egypt is a changing point for me,” he said. “I’m not going to be the same. I’m asking for more rights, every small right.”

Over 100 people celebrated Mubarak's departure on Friday at MIT. (Jess Bidgood/WGBH)

Across the hall, near dozens of attendees eating falafal and foul sandwiches, Murad Alim was taking as many pictures as he could of people holding a poster that read ‘Thank you Egypt, you inspired the world.’

Those pictures are going straight to Facebook. “We wanted to send some message back to Egypt,” he said, to give something back after the weeks he and his friends here have spent reading the Tweets and Facebook status of Egyptians at home.
 
Wrapped in the Egyptian flag, Ahmed Ashour was actually preparing to get himself back to Egypt, too. He was only in Boston for a few days, looking at business schools. He said that when he left Egypt on this trip, he had no idea he’d be returning to a changed country. “I never thought it would turn out that (Mubarak) would leave today,” Ashour said.
 
Ashour’s joy steeled into a hard anticipation of the challenges he’ll face when he gets home. “We’ll start the new era, the difficult one to build a new Egypt.”

About the Authors
Bob Seay Bob Seay
Bob Seay is the host of NPR's Morning Edition on 89.7FM WGBH Radio. He got his start in radio during college at WMUH, got involved with WGBH TV while in graduate school at Boston University and formerly hosted ME at WRNI in Rhode Island.
Phillip Martin Phillip Martin
Phillip W. D. Martin is the senior investigative reporter for WGBH Radio News and executive producer for Lifted Veils Productions. In the past, he was a supervising senior editor for NPR, an NPR race relations correspondent and one of the senior producers responsible for creating The World radio program in 1995. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in 1998. Learn more at liftedveils.org.
Jess Bidgood Jess Bidgood
Jess Bidgood is WGBH.org's news editor and producer.

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