By - Victoria Akindele
Wangarĩ Muta Maathai ‘’Nothing is more beautiful than cultivating the land at dusk. At that time of day in the central highlands the air and the soil are cool, the sun is going down, the sunlight is golden against the ridges and the green of trees, and there is usually a breeze. As you remove the weeds and press the earth around the crops you feel content, and wish the light would last longer so you could cultivate more. Earth and water, air and waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil. When I was a child I sometimes became so absorbed working in the fields with my machete that I didn’t notice the end of the day until it got so dark that I could no longer differentiate between the weeds and crops. At that point I knew it was time to go home, on the narrow paths that crisis crossed the fields and rivers and woodlots.’’ Wangarĩ Muta Maathai – Unbowed (a memoir), p. 47
Wangari Muta Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya (Africa) into the Kikuyu family, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, and had lived in the area for several generations. A Kenyan politician and environmental activist, she was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace, becoming the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize. Her efforts were often considered unwanted and treasonable in her homeland because she was too much a candor for her gender roles.
Maathai was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College; B.S. in biology, 1964) and at the University of Pittsburgh (M.S., 1966). In 1971, she received a Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, effectively becoming the first woman in either East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate. She began teaching in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi after graduation, and in 1977 she became chair of the department.
While working with the National Council of Women of Kenya, Maathai developed the idea that village women could improve the environment by planting trees to provide a fuel source and to slow the processes of deforestation and desertification. Hence, founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization, which encourages women to plant trees to combat deforestation and environmental degradation. Till date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 50 million trees.
Increasingly aware that the environment was directly linked to issues of governance, peace and human rights, Maathai began to use her organization as a springboard in the struggle against abuses of power, such as land-grabbing or the illegal detention of political opponents. Leaders of the Green Belt Movement established the Pan African Green Belt Network in 1986 in order to educate world leaders about conservation and environmental improvement. As a result of the movement’s activism, similar initiatives were begun in other African countries, including Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe.
In addition to her conservation work, Maathai was also an advocate for human rights, AIDS prevention, and women’s issues, and she frequently represented these concerns at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. She also expressed her concerns about poverty in Africa.
Maathai recognized that purposeful political leadership can achieve positive social change. “Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya,” she said. She organized protests against former President Daniel arap Moi, who angrily referred to her as a “mad woman” and her activities as “subversive.” In 1992, while protesting the president’s allocations of land to his cronies, she was beaten unconscious by thugs and state police. She remained valorous. President Moi stepped down in 2002, providing Maathai with a friendlier political climate. She won a parliamentary election and became assistant minister of the environment. Not long after, the ruling party dismissed her from the cabinet for involvement in opposition politics. She subsequently lost her parliamentary seat during a dubious election.
Also, she was elected to Kenya’s National Assembly in 2002 with 98 percent of the vote, and in 2003, she was appointed assistant minister of environment, natural resources, and wildlife. When she won the Nobel Prize in 2004, the committee commended her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in particular.” Her first book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (1988; rev. ed. 2003), detailed the history of the organization. She published an autobiography, Unbowed, in 2007. Another volume, The Challenge for Africa (2009), criticized Africa’s leadership as ineffectual and urged Africans to try to solve their problems without Western assistance. Maathai was a frequent contributor to international publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.
Maathai died Sept. 25, 2011 at age 71. A mother of three, she devoted her life to promoting the environment and democracy. She fought many battles, including personal ones. Her husband, Mwangi Maathai, divorced her for being “too strong-minded for a woman.” She challenged the divorce in court, and when she lost, she called the judge “incompetent and corrupt.” The remarks landed her in jail for six months.
Following her death, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Maathai “a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.” Al Gore, a former US vice-president and another Nobel laureate, said she “devoted her service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, all people of Kenya — and to the world.” The US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders.”
Several posthumous recognition have been made in her honour such as the Wangarĩ Gardens opened in Washington, DC (2012) veerating the legacy of Wangarĩ Maathai and her mission for community engagement and environmental protection.. Wangarĩ Gardens is a 2.7 acre community garden project for local residents which consists of over 55 garden allotments. The Wangarĩ Gardens has no direct affiliation with the Green Belt Movement or the Wangarĩ Maathai Foundation but was inspired by Wangarĩ Maathai and her work and passion for the environment.
Also, on Sept. 25, 2013, the Wangarĩ Maathai Trees and Garden was dedicated on the lawn of the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The memorial includes two red maples symbolizing Maathai’s “commitment to the environment, her founding of the Green Belt Movement, and her roots in Kenya and in Pittsburgh” and a flower garden planted in a circular shape that representing her “global vision and dedication to the women and children of the world” with an ornamental maple tree in the middle signifying “how one small seed can change the world”.
Likewise in 2014, her Mount St. Scholastica classmates and Benedictine College unveiled an effigy of the Nobel laureate at her alma mater’s Atchison, Kansas campus and in October 2016, Forest Road in Nairobi was renamed to Wangarĩ Maathai Road for her efforts to oppose several attempts to degrade forests and public parks through the Green Belt Movement.
During her last days, even as she battled ovarian cancer in a Nairobi hospital, Maathai reiterated her wish that she must not be buried in a wooden coffin — thereby reaffirming her life-long battle to save trees and the rest of the environment. The Nigerian environmental activist, Nnimmo Bassey, commented: “If no one applauds this great woman of Africa, the trees will clap.’’
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