Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, died of ovarian cancer on Sunday, September 25, 2011  at the age 71. 

She was known as Earth Mother and a True African Heroine.  She was Kenya’s eco-warrior and an environment visionary.  World leaders paid her tributes.  In 2009, Wangari (Africa’s Tree Woman) was featured on CNN’s “Revealed” Show.  See the video.

Wangari was an environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya.  She founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights.  She received the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” She was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005.

Not bad for the woman who was born in village of Ihithe.  In 1943, her family relocated to a white owned farm where her father found work in Rift Valley.  Then in 1947 Wangari returned to Ihithe with her mother because her two brothers were attending primary school as there was no schooling available on the farm where her father worked.  Her father remained at the farm.  When she was eight, Wangari joined her brothers at Ihithe Primary School.

At the age of eleven Wangari moved to St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri where she studied for four years.  She became fluent in English and coverted to Catholicism, taking the Christian name Mary Josephine.   She also was involved with the Christian society known as the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted “to serve God by serving fellow human beings.  Studying at St. Cecilia’s, sheltered Wangari from the ongoing Mau Mau Uprising, which forced her mother to move from their homestead to an emergency village in Ihithe.

When she completed her studies in 1956, she was rated first in her class, and was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School Limuru in Limuru.  She graduated in 1959 and was planning to attend the University of East Africa in Kampala, Uganda.  However, toward the end of the colonial period of East Africa, Kenyan politicans were proposing ways to make education available to promising students.  John F. Kennedy who was a United States senator at the time agreed to fund such a program through his brother, Joseph’s foundation.  This initiative would become known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. In September 1960, Wangari was among the three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities.

Wangari majored in biology and her minors were in chemistry and German.  After she received her bachelor of science degree, was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh where she studied for a master’s degree in biology.  Her graduate studies there were funded by the Africa-America Institute and during her time in Pittsburgh, she experienced her first environmental restoration experience when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution.  In January 1966, she received her Master of Science in Biological Sciences and was appointed to a position as research assistant to a professor of zoology at University College of Nairobi. 

When Wangari returned to Kenya, she dropped her Christian name.  She preferred to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta.  Unfortunately for her, the job she thought she had secured at the university was given to someone else.  Wangari believed this happened because of gender and tribal bias.  After searching for a job for two months, Professor Reinhold Hofmann, from the University of Giessen in Germany, offered her a job as a research assistant in the microanatomy section of the newly established Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi.

In April 1966, Wangari met the man she would marry.  Mwangi Mathai was another Kenyan who had studied in America.  With the encouragement of professor Hofmann, she traveled to the University of Giessen in Germany in pursuit of a doctorate. She studied both at Giessen and the University of Munich. She returned to Nairobi in the spring of 1969 to continue her studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer.  In May of the same year, she and Mwangi Mathai got married.  While Wangari was pregnant with their first child, Mwangi campaign for a seat in seat in Parliament, narrowly losing.

Wangari’s credentials are impressive.  In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a Ph.D., when she was granted a Doctorate of Anatomy from the University College of Nairobi, which became the University of Nairobi the following year. She completed her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines.  She continued to teach at the university, becoming a senior lecturer in Anatomy in 1974, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman appointed to any of these positions in Nairobi. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university, going so far as to attempt to turn the academic staff association of the university into a union, in order to negotiate for benefits. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met.

In addition to her work at the University of Nairobi, Wangari became involved in a number of civic organizations in the early 1970s such as the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, becoming its director in 1973; a member of the Kenya Association of University Women; establishment of the e in 1974, Maathai was asked to be a member of the local board, eventually becoming the chair of the board of Environment Liaison Centre. The Environment Liaison Centre worked to promote the participation of non-governmental organizations in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters was established in Nairobi following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Wangair  joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Her work at these various volunteer associations made it clear to Wangari that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation.

While Wangari was pregnant with their third child, her husband campaigned again for a seat in Parliament, hoping to represent the Lang’ata constituency, and this time he won. During the course of his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. These promises led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed, and led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved the planting trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery, collocated with a government tree nursery in Karura Forest. Envirocare ran into multiple problems, primarily dealing with funding. The project failed, however, through conversations concerning Envirocare and her work at the Environment Liaison Centre, UNEP made it possible to send Maathai to the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I, in June 1976.

In 1977, Wangari spoke to the NCWK concerning her attendance at Habitat I. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported. On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji park on the outskirts of the city where they planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt” which was first known as the “Save the Land Harambee” and then became the Green Belt Movement.  Wangari encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

It is unfortunate that Wangari’s marriage ended and in a bad way.  Her husband left her in 1977.  After a lengthy separation, he sued for divorce, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. He publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, causing his high blood pressure, and of being cruel.  The judge in the divorce case agreed with Wangari’s husband.  In an interview, Wangari accused the judge of incompetence or corruption and this angered him.  As a result, she was charged with contempt of court, found guilty, and sentenced to six months in jail. Three days later she was released from Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, after her lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release.  The divorce was costly and with lawyers’ fees and the loss of her husband’s income, Wangari found it difficult to provide for herself and her three children on her university wages alone.

An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. However this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia and Wangari was unable to bring her children with her. She chose to send them to their father and take the job whom they lived until 1985.  During that time, she visited them regularly.

Wangari’s activism made her unpopular with the Kenyan government.  When she learned of the plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park would house the headquarters of KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading center, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, include parking space for two thousand cars and a large statue of President arap Moi, she sprung into action.  She wrote many letters in protest: to the Kenya Times, the Office of the President, the Nairobi city commission, the provincial commissioner, the minister for environment and natural resources, the executive directors of UNEP and the Environment Liaison Centre International, the executive director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the ministry of public works, and the permanent secretary in the department of international security and administration. She also wrote to Sir John Johnson, the British high commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene with Robert Maxwell, a major shareholder in the project, equating the construction of a tower in Uhuru Park to such construction in Hyde Park or Central Park and maintaining that it could not be tolerated.

The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, choosing instead to respond through the media and claimed that Maathai was “a crazy woman”.  They denied that  the project in Uhuru Park would take more than a small portion of public park land, and declared that the project as a “fine and magnificent work of architecture” opposed by only the “ignorant few.” Wangari’s letters drew outrage from Parliament who complained of her letters to foreign organizations and called the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members “a bunch of divorcees”.  They suggested that if Maathai was so comfortable writing to Europeans, perhaps she should go live in Europe. 

During a speech in Uhuru Park, celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home.  The government then audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. However, foreign investors scrapped the project and it’s ironic that this was due not only to Wangari’s protests but to the government’s response and the media coverage.  Wangari and the government butted heads following the cancelled Uhuru Park project.  She was arrested along with other pro-democracy activists, charged with spreading malicious rumors, sedition and treason.  The charges were dropped after a variety of international organizations and eight senators, including Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy put pressure on the government of Kenya to substantiate the charges against the pro-democracy activists or risk damaging relations with the United States.

In 1992, Wangari and others went on a hunger strike in a corner of Uruhu Park, which they called Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners.  After four days, the police forcibly removed the protesters.  Wangari and others three other people were knocked unconscious by the police and hospitalized.  President Daniel arap Moi called her “a mad woman” who is “a threat to the order and security of the country”. The attack drew international criticism. The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence and by the forcible removal of the hunger strikers. When the political prisoners were not released, the protestors, mostly mothers of those in prison, moved their protest to All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, across from Uhuru Park. The protest there continued, with Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.

Wangari received various international awards but the Kenyan government did not appreciate her work.  We salute this remarkable woman who was not afraid to stand up for what she believed in.  She did not allow the government to intimidate her.  She refused to be “a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet”.  She will be missed by many who were inspired by her courage and vision. 

A state funeral will be held for Wangari in Nairobi.   The east African country declared Thursday and Friday national days of mourning in honour of the woman who fought to defend women’s rights and protect the country’s environment.  No one is more deserving of this honor than Africa’s first woman Nobel peace laureate who endured being whipped, tear-gassed, imprisoned and threatened with death for her devotion to “Africa’s forests and her desire to end the corruption that often spells their destruction” (Reuters). 

My inspiration partly comes from my childhood experiences and observations of Nature in rural Kenya. It has been influenced and nurtured by the formal education I was privileged to receive in Kenya, the United States and Germany. As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

Wangari Maathai




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