NAIROBI, Kenya — On the morning of Oct. 8, Wangari Maathai was, as usual, behind schedule. A radio interview had run long, and then we hit Nairobi's notorious rush-hour traffic, which meant she would be late for a meeting in the town of Nyeri, where she was born and whose district she represents in Kenya's parliament. As we bounced along the rutted road leading out of Nairobi, the cellphones of Maathai and her assistant began ringing.
Had she heard, a local journalist asked, that she'd been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize? Another caller said she was on the short list.
No, Maathai replied with a laugh, she hadn't heard anything. A combination of amusement and bemusement played across her face.
I'd read a story on the Nobel Prize the night before, which talked about nominees like Mohamed ElBaradei, George W. Bush and Tony Blair. There was no mention of Maathai the environmentalist, women's rights activist and democracy campaigner. Maathai the Nobel winner must be a crazy rumor, I said to myself, and I put it out of my mind. I've been a friend and supporter of Maathai's since 2001, and I was trying to tape an interview with her for a book about culture and the environment. I didn't need any more distractions.
I'd switched off my recorder when the Norwegian ambassador to Kenya called. Her assistant said Maathai wasn't available. She was setting up the public address system for her meeting in Nyeri. The ambassador asked that professor Maathai, as she's known in Kenya, call the Nobel Foundation in Norway. She couldn't, though, because her phone can't call abroad.
I asked Maathai about the ambassador's call, and we looked at each other. She made a familiar gesture that translates to "How about that?" I suggested that Maathai call the ambassador back. His number was on her assistant's pad. By now, I could feel my heart beating.
Maathai's phone rang -- the ambassador again. She took the call.
"Mr. Ambassador?" she asked, straining to hear the caller's voice on the staticky line. Her eyes narrowed, then dramatically widened. She laughed and thrust her hand in the air. "Oh, wow, great, yea!" she repeatedly said. She turned to me. "We won!" The Nobel Foundation would be calling.
Kenya's deputy minister for the environment and natural resources; founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organization that has planted nearly 30 million trees across Kenya through networks of rural women; first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a PhD; first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi; and a hero to Kenyans had been awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. I was stunned.
We hugged for what seemed like a long time. Then Maathai said, her eyes tearing, "I didn't know anyone was listening."
The cellphones began jingling. No doubt the media. We pulled into the small hotel in Nyeri where we'd planned to take a break. A handful of mostly local journalists clapped at the sight of Maathai. It was 15 minutes to noon -- and a whole new world.
As I watched the announcement of the prize live on CNN in the hotel's deserted bar, I thought about Maathai's work. For decades, she had fought to restore Kenya's degraded environment, especially its forests, and to give poor women a voice in a region of the world where men dominate government. Maathai's persistent calls for democracy and the rule of law had earned her beatings, harassment and jail -- as recently as 2001. But she was never deterred. She has inspired civil rights and green movements all over East Africa.
To celebrate, Maathai urged people to "plant a tree. Imagine the millions we can plant around the world."
The hotel manager brought Maathai a tree to plant. Despite mounting media requests for an interview, Maathai then went to her scheduled community meeting. Not even a Nobel Prize was going to interfere with her commitment to meet with the townspeople. The meeting was cut short, though, when Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki sent a helicopter to take Maathai back to Nairobi. I rode along. The ground below looked very green. After a news conference at State House, it was a long night of interviews, little food and some rushed, tepid tea.
The next morning I was up early. Pictures of a smiling Maathai in Nyeri appeared on the front pages of Kenya's newspapers. The sun was out. As I moved around the city, it looked as if Nairobi's roadside nurseries had been freshly stocked, overnight, with all manner of trees.