Key Speeches & Articles

Rise Up and Walk! The Third Annual Nelson Mandela Lecture

By Wangari Maathai
Johannesburg, South Africa
July 19, 2005

Your Excellencies, Presidents Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton, 
Your Grace the Archbishop Desmond Tutu, 
Her Excellency Graca Machel
Ministers, Excellencies,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Wangari Maathai with Congolese women in the Republic of Congo, February 2005. Photo: Marcus Agar.Allow me to thank the Nelson Mandela Foundation for inviting me to share these unforgettable days with South Africa. It is both a privilege and an honour to be in your midst and to give this year’s Nelson Mandela Lecture.

This is a very special time when we are celebrating Madiba’s birthday. Madiba, you are a source of great joy and pride for all of us in Africa and indeed in the whole world. Thank you for your dedication and commitment for the cause of freedom and human dignity.

We thank God for the gift that is Nelson Mandela. We salute you Madiba, we love you and we shall remain forever grateful to you. It is a privilege to be here to say, Happy Birthday, and may you have many more.

I am very aware of the extraordinary speakers of previous Mandela lectures. Both President Bill Clinton and the Archbishop Desmond Tutu have set very high standards for these lectures. I am deeply honored to share this platform with them.

In the last few weeks the world and G8 leaders have focused on Africa. In Gleneagles, Scotland, G8 leaders were joined by African statesmen, among them Presidents Thabo Mbeki of South Africa, Olesegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia.

Leading up to the G8 meeting, another global campaign was picking up: Live8. Inspired by Geldof, Bono and other concerned artists around the world, the concerts were organised in support of Africa, attracting millions of ordinary citizens in industrialised countries. They went to enjoy the music but they also went to be informed and educated about Africa. They used that forum to express their support for Africa. The G8 leaders listened and watched as their citizens gathered to support the call to make dehumanising poverty unacceptable.

But even as I appreciated and was encouraged by the efforts at Gleneagles and around the world I had some concerns. This is because I knew that the G8 leaders had their own concerns and constraints. I also knew that they had some doubts about leadership and governance in Africa. They were therefore unlikely to, for example, cancel all the unpayable debts. Yet they knew that in some countries like Kenya, essential services are denied citizens so that debt obligations can be met. In other countries, the average income used to determine eligibility for debt cancellation is misleading. This is because of inequitable distribution of resources, which has created large disparities between the few very rich and many citizens who are very poor. When such countries are denied debt relief, it is the many poor people who are punished.

The G8 leaders had their reasons for their doubts. It was reported that some of these reasons included the fact that some African governments do not respect the rule of law and human rights, that some leaders are corrupt and often siphon the same money into personal accounts, that some governments spend funds inefficiently and excessively. It is important to realise, however, that those who may be guilty do not suffer; it is the poor who suffer.

Despite the challenges, there has been much progress in Africa. There are already good indications of good governance in many countries. In many others, civil society continues to grow with moral support from governments and the African Union. For example, the African Union is currently overseeing the formation of a civil society organ (ECOSOCC), to advise it on issues related to the African people and to ensure that they participate in the affairs of the Union. I have the honor of presiding over this process and I consider it an important window of opportunity.

Further, many countries in the region are resolving their conflicts and are working for peace and stability. For sure, much remains to be done. But we must appreciate and encourage those who are making bold decisions.

Nevertheless, as I stated earlier, it is the ordinary citizens who suffer when debts are not cancelled, when financial assistance is not forthcoming or when trade barriers are raised.

It is on their behalf that the African leaders traveled to Gleneagles to meet G8 leaders. It is on their behalf that the Live8 concerts were held. It is for them that the Jubilee 2000 campaign was carried out by global citizens. Yet many ordinary citizens in Africa had no idea that such discussions and concerts were taking place on their behalf.

I wonder how many consultations and concerts will be held before a sustainable solution is found not only by the G8 leaders but also by the African leadership and people. What will it take for a solution to be found?

I ask these questions because the poor people the world is concerned about come from Africa, which is one of the richest continents on the planet. It is endowed with a large number of men and women; it has a lot of sunshine, oil, precious stones, forests, water, wildlife, soil, land and agricultural products. So, why are her people so poor?

The problem is that many Africans lack knowledge, skills and tools to create wealth from their resources. They are unable to add value to their raw materials so that they can take processed goods into the local and international markets and negotiate better prices and better trade rules. Without that capacity, opportunities will continue to slip by or others will continue to take advantage of them without the benefits reaching the people in whose name these negotiations take place.

What can be done to prepare Africa so that she benefits from the concessions and opportunities that surely lie ahead?

During the last thirty years of working with the Green Belt Movement I saw the need to give our people values. The man whose birthday we celebrate today exemplifies these values. For example, the value of service for the common good. How shall we motivate our men and women in the region, willing to sacrifice and volunteer so that others may have it better? The values of commitment, persistence and patience, to stay with it until the goal is realised.

The love for the land and desire to protect it from desertification and other destructive processes. Perhaps it is due to lack of information and ignorance, or perhaps it is due to poverty, but we need people who love Africa so much that they want to protect her from destructive processes. Some that are threatening the entire continent include desertification due to deforestation, encroachment into forests for subsistence farming, overgrazing and loss of biodiversity and soil. Of particular importance for Africa and the world is the protection of the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.

These two values are important for African leaders, who should govern and serve for the benefit of the people, rather than themselves. Working at the grassroots level and with the poor people, it was depressing to see those in power fail to provide necessary services and protect the land. Instead they facilitated the exploitation of the people and their resources. Because I have experienced irresponsible governance in the course of my work for the environment, it is difficult to dismiss the reservations and concerns expressed by the G8 leaders.

Another value we must espouse is the love and concern for the youth. One of the most devastating experiences at the grassroots level today is to see the youth wasting away because they are unemployed, even after they have completed secondary and tertiary education. Governments should prioritise the youth and their health. This should involve investments in technical education, HIV and AIDS prevention, treatment and care/support programs.

One of the constraints, even for the government, is that we have not invested enough in education and especially in technical education. Technical education would give citizens knowledge, skills and experience, which would make them competent, confident and competitive. Such personnel would create opportunities for entrepreneurship and wealth creation. Such investments in Asia have contributed significantly to the economic growth and alleviation of poverty in the region.

Without skills, people will always find themselves locked out of productive, rewarding economic activities that would give them a better share of their national wealth. They find themselves unemployed or underemployed and they are certainly underpaid. They may wish to secure a well-paid job, but if they do not have the skills and the tools, nobody will hire them. Consequently they will not be able to meet their needs for housing, healthcare, nutrition, and other family and personal needs. They get trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty and sometimes crime.

Besides these values Africa needs to prepare herself by deliberately working for peace and security. I believe much of the poverty in Africa has been fuelled by conflicts. In the course of my work I learnt that whether it is at the national or regional level, most conflicts between communities are over resources: who will access, control and utilise them; who will be included or excluded.

Often, those in power invent excuses to justify the exclusion and other injustices against those perceived to be weak and vulnerable. But when resources are scarce, so degraded that they can no longer sustain livelihoods, or when they are not equitably distributed, conflicts will invariably ensue.

Equitable distribution of resources cannot be effected unless there is democratic space, which respects the rule of law and human rights. Such democratic space gives citizens an enabling environment to be creative and productive. What is clear is that there is a close linkage between sustainable management of resources and equitable distribution of the same on the one hand and democratic governance and peace on the other. These are the pillars of any stable and secure state. Such a state has the enabling environment for development. People who are denied the three pillars eventually become angry and frustrated, and undermine peace and security in their neighborhoods and beyond.

For that reason, we need to manage our resources sustainably, accountably and responsibly. We need to share those resources equitably. Otherwise, we shall continue to invest in wars and conflicts, fighting crime and domestic instability, rather than promoting development and thereby eliminating poverty.

Over the past thirty years of work in Kenya I discovered something that is still not very clear to me. It is perhaps the most unrecognised problem in Africa today, especially at the grassroots level. It is the level of disempowerment of our people. Wherever it comes from, it manifests itself in the form of fear, lack of confidence, low self-esteem, apathy and lack of enthusiasm to take charge of one’s life and destiny. To the disempowered, it seems much easier and acceptable to leave their lives completely in the hands of third parties, especially governments.

At the Green Belt Movement, to assist community members understand the need to take charge of their destiny and overcome apathy, we initiated education seminars to identify problems, their sources and solutions. This became a process of self-discovery and self-empowerment. It would take a long time but eventually participants believed in themselves and became more independent and self-reliant. They embraced some of these values mentioned above and developed a deep desire to better themselves and their immediate environments. Eventually they were even willing to work for the common resources like forests and public parks.

For Africa to benefit from the opportunities which come her way, she must empower her people. Education will help, peace and security are important, and sustainable management of resources is essential. But the people must be allowed to gain confidence, dignity and a sense of self-worth. Ultimately, they must also be empowered with knowledge, skills and tools to take action. This is why debt relief is very important. It allows governments additional resources to invest in initiatives that empower.

The phenomenon of disempowerment is very common and perhaps that is why it is not addressed. But I believe that it is one of the main reasons why so many people are unable to take advantage of the many opportunities available in Africa today. Such disempowerment and the triumph over it remind me of a story in the Bible that I love. (It is in Acts 3:1–10.) It’s the story where Peter and John went to the temple for prayer. As they approached, they came across a beggar, who was crippled since birth. The beggar must have had all the characteristics of a disempowered person: poor, self-effacing, dejected, low self-esteem, no self-pride and no sense of well-being. He did not even dare to look up to the people from whom he was begging. He was too ashamed of his status. The Bible says that he bowed his head, hid his face and stretched his hand for alms.

Peter and John, upon seeing him in that dehumanised and humiliated state, said to him “Look up”! That must have been a bit startling, because people did not usually talk to him. Peter went on, “Silver and gold we do not have, but what we have we give to you.” And, taking him by the right hand Peter helped the lame man stand up saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, Rise up and walk!”

And much to his surprise, he felt his limbs get strong and he rose up and walked forward with confidence and pride. The Bible says he went with Peter and John into the temple “jumping and praising God.” He was an empowered man: no longer a beggar, no longer dehumanised. Now he could go and take care of himself with dignity, self-respect and confidence.

There must have been many worshippers who had given him a few coins many times but never thought of doing anything different. But Peter and John reacted differently and decided to empower him, to give him wholeness. They encouraged him to believe in himself and walk with them into the temple.

Friends and leaders of Africa should be like Peter and John. They should strive to empower Africa and not only give her alms. African governments should be responsible and accountable to their people, lifting them from ignorance, diseases and poverty, which cripple them.

In closing, we must remember that Peter and John called on the beggar to rise up and walk. It was not Peter and John who had to do the rising and the walking. It was the beggar. On his part, the beggar made a choice to respond to the call. He could have preferred to stay put and continue to beg the rich worshippers. But he decided to respond to an opportunity which presented itself, he was ready for it and his life was changed for the better.

With African leaders like those here today, President Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many friends like President Bill Clinton we have the “Peters” and “Johns” we need. They call on all of us to “Rise up and walk.” Walk away from ignorance, inertia, apathy and fatalism. Walk towards the temple of economic and political freedom. An Africa free of dehumanising poverty.

There are simple actions we can take. Start by planting ten trees we each need to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale. Practice the 3R campaign (reduce, re-use, repair and re-use, which is mottainai in Japanese), get involved in local initiatives and volunteer your time for services in your community. Governments should prioritise technical schools and give people knowledge and skills for self-employment.

Madiba, I know this is the dream you have for Africa. An Africa free of poverty. An Africa with economic and political freedom. An empowered Africa.

So my fellow Africans. Let’s heed the call of Madiba: “Rise Up and Walk!” 

Thank you.