Environment editor, Dr Florence Hazrat, looks back over the inspiring life of Professor Wangari Maathai, the radical environmentalist and women’s rights advocate from Kenya.
When one thinks of a radical environmentalist who is also an activist for the rights of women and democracy, one would think of a tree-planting in-sitting hunger-striker, rather than a parliamentarian university professor who also happens to be a Nobel Prize laureate. Wangari Maathai, however, was exactly that: activist and academic, prisoner and political lobbyist at the highest level. She was also a woman of many “firsts”: first East African woman to receive a PhD, founder of the first Green Party of Kenya, first female African Nobel Peace Prize holder. From humble beginnings as daughter of illiterate small-scale farmers, Maathai climbed the ranks of politics and academia through hard-work and indomitable courage, pioneering in the fight for the rights of women and the natural world. Yet, until an untimely death aged 71, she planted trees with her own hands, living up to her credo of the human need to connect with the earth, and the holiness spun around that relationship.
‘I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.’
Maathai Wangari in an interview with Priscilla Sears, ‘You strike the woman, you strike the rock’, 1991.
Born in 1940, Maathai grew up in a small village in Kenya. At the local primary school run by Catholic nuns, she soon excelled, and was offered a scholarship to study at a boarding school in Nairobi. As a first-class graduate, she won a prestigious new scholarship to study at the US where she read biology, chemistry, and German. She continued her education in Germany and Nairobi to which she returned in 1969 and received a PhD in veterinary science in 1971, the first woman from East Africa to do so. She rose from research associate to professor, and then to Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976. During her years as full-time academic, Maathai campaigned for equal pay at the university irrespective of gender, and turned the academic staff association into a labour union, fighting for their cause. She also became involved in the Federational Council of Women of Kenya, the International Red Cross, and the United Nations environmental section.
During her work in the social rights movements, Wangari Maathai realised that the fate of people was directly connected to their environment; that is, their attitude towards and treatment of it. In 1974, she founded Envirocare, a company that hired unemployed women to plant trees. Although her business eventually failed, it provided the seed for the creation of Maathai’s 1977 Green Belt Movement, a group that took Envirocare‘s idea and fulfilled it through internationally funded means.
At the time, Kenya, having gained its independence from the British Empire only 14 years before, suffered from severe deforestation. During the British occupation (since 1888), small homesteads had to make way for vast mono-cultures of black tea, leaving the land dry and barren. The resulting soil, unable to hold water, yielded little opportunity for farming. Women, the main providers of drinking water and firewood for cooking, had to search for material far and wide, and would cut even the smallest of trees out of sheer necessity. Maathai understood that she who needs to care for today cannot care for tomorrow. So she started to offer the women workshops on how sustainable management of the environment would eventually lead to cleaner more stable food income.
The women were also encouraged to plant trees, and received small stipends for their upkeep. They would choose local kinds of trees and plants which were well adapted to the natural givens and would also yield food and medicine. A pillar of the Green Belt Movement‘s ethics consisted of safeguarding local knowledge and cultures, making the most of knowledge that communities brought to the table. ‘To work with communities,’ Maathai would say in an interview, ‘you need passion. You need to really want to do that. And they can be a nuisance. And you are in a hurry because you want them to change like yesterday.’ She stayed, persevered and empowered them. She helped the community to realise that they are custodians and beneficiaries of trees; she showed them that they had agency to improve their own lives. All starts with planting that one tree.
It would be only a matter of time before the government and I came into further conflict.’
Wangari Maathai, from Unbowed, 2006.
Her work on environmental conservation also crystallized the relationship between natural resources and social conflict. A scramble for water and land would inevitably lead to struggle and war, a visionary conclusion by Maathai which provoked a natural foray into politics. In 1982, Maathai stood for MP in her borough, which required her to leave her job at the university. Her enemies were many, against the woman who so staunchly campaigned for a multi-party democracy, rather than a single-party quasi dictatorship of Moi. Maathai was disqualified owing to technicalities. After the university refused to give her her job back, she moved into a small house, getting by on the small income from several social projects. Maathai continued to fight big, however, opposing the construction of a sixty storey highrise office-cum-mall-cum-parking lot in the protected Uhuru Park. She sent letters to high-profile contacts, and, not for the first or last time, was called ‘crazy’, a woman with ‘insects in [her] head’. Moi called her ‘a threat to the order and security of the country’. That ‘threat’, nevertheless, succeeded in stopping the cutting down of ancient trees owing to the publicity she created, which led foreign investors to withdraw from the project.
Political mobbing continued, and Mathaai was forced to vacate the premises of the Green Belt Movement‘s headquarters. That, however, did not stop the radical environmentalist who moved the offices to her small home, barricading herself for several days against a veritable police siege outside – police who had been controlled by the incumbent regime that suppressed freedom of expression and other human rights such as free and fair elections. After that, in order to force the release of a spade of human rights activists, Maathai went on hunger strike at a corner of her beloved Uhuru Park, but was attacked by the police after four days, knocked unconscious, and forcibly removed to prison. It was only owing to her international network and public persona that she was released shortly after.
More than ever, Maathai was convinced that sustainability – and that includes the well-being of the people – is only possible through good governance. ‘I knew that we could not live with a political system that killed creativity, nurtured corruption, and produced people who were afraid of their own leaders’ (Unbowed, 2006). In 2002, she finally became a member of parliament in Kenya, the first year the country held a truly democratic multi-party election. A year later, Maathai founded Kenya’s first Green Party; a year after that, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her life-long activism to promote peace through caring for the environment.
It’s the little things we can do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.’Wangari Maathai
Maathai’s legacy is a huge one, including the promotion of pan-African collaboration and leadership positions for women. But she also believed in the ability (and indeed responsibility) of every single individual to make a difference, to contribute to society, and not to let down future generations. Those blessed with ability and education, she fiercely believed, had a responsibility to serve, and she did not exclude herself. The big challenge of toppling corruption and privilege of those in power led her to devote her energy to nurturing those at the grassroots, a radical localism that eventually managed to arrest the dissociation of people from land.
Wangari Maathai was certainly targeted for being a woman. Her husband, with whom she had three children, divorced her in 1979 because she was ‘too strong-minded for a woman’ and he was ‘unable to control her’. This “waywardness”, he alleged, caused him high blood pressure, a grievous offence which the judge ruled in his favour. Maathai was condemned to six months in prison, but released after 3 days, when the absurdity of it all became apparent.
If necessary, Maathai would put her own physical safety in danger, but essentially, she was a promoter of peace: ‘We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents of change.’ Trees, in the tradition of the Kikuyu, the largest ethnic tribe in Kenya to which Wangari also belonged, are a symbol of peace and of a good conscience. When two groups are at war with each other, their elders carry a staff from the thigi tree, and place it between the fighting sides. This, it is believed, causes them to stop and seek reconciliation. A tree, Wangari said, has a personality. As it grows, it changes its environment, and also the hearts and minds of the people who take care of it. They build a relationship to it, and the tree encourages them to do more, to care more. And so should we, wherever we are, in this world.