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Wangari Muta Maathai, 1940-2011

Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey remembers the life of Wangari Maathai, the internationally recognised founder of the Green Belt Movement, who died on 25 September.

Wangari Muta Maathai, surrounded by her family, suddenly departed these mortal shores on 25 September 2011 in a Nairobi hospital. She will be missed for many reasons because she led an active life that stood up to power, supported the oppressed and fought for the respect of nature.

Wangari Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in Kenya. She completed her secondary education at Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959 and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, USA. In 1966 she earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Still in pursuit of higher education, she received a Ph.D in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi in 1971. She was the first woman in east and central Africa to attain this feat. She was also the first to be appointed a professor in her field of study.

While being involved with some environmental and humanitarian organisations in Nairobi in the 1970s, Maathai became concerned about the deteriorating socio-environmental conditions in which poor, rural Kenyans lived. She learned how the women lacked firewood for cooking and heating, how they struggled to obtain clean water and how nutritious food was hard to get. This is when she lit onto the idea of tree planting as a solution to the web of problems confronting the women and the rural poor.

This was when the seeds were sown that later on germinated into the Green Belt Movement by 1977. The women learned that trees provided wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, material for fencing and stabilised soils and protected watersheds.

To her credit, Maathai mobilised men and women to plant over 47 million trees in her lifetime. These have helped to restore degraded environments and uplift the quality of life of many.

The struggle for a better environment drew Maathai into the political arena where she confronted the dictatorial regime of President Arap Moi in the 1980s and 1990s. These manifested in her campaign against the erection of a skyscraper in Uhuru Park in Nairobi and the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest close to Nairobi city centre. She stood with the mothers of political prisoners in a yearlong series of vigils that saw the release of 51 men by the government.

She suffered personal attacks, arrests, incarceration and insults in the course of her campaigns for democracy in Kenya. In December 2002 elections, she was elected Member of Parliament for Tetu. That election was hailed by some as the first free-and-fair election in Kenya for a generation. Her political career continued with her being appointed deputy environmental minister in 2003 by President Mwai Kibaki. She raised her voice for peace, accountability and justice in the violence that followed the contested 2007 Kenyan elections.

Her achievements include the work she did with the Green Belt Movement and other allies to ensure that the new Kenyan constitution, ratified by a public vote in 2010, was prepared on a consultative basis and that it included the right of all citizens to a clean and healthy environment.

In 2006, Maathai joined with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees around the world. After meeting that goal in less than a year a new target of 14 billion trees was set.

Maathai was a women who stood out and drew positive attention to Africa while fighting to better the lot of her people and the environment. She was the first African Nobel Peace Laureate (2004); an environmentalist of note; a scientist; parliamentarian; founder of the Green Belt Movement; advocate for social justice, human rights, and democracy; elder; and peacemaker. She won several other awards, including some bestowed on her by governments. These include: the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003). Maathai also received awards from many organisations and institutions throughout the world, including: the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984); and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the US, Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others.

Her books reveal key milestones in her life and struggles: ‘The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience’ (2003); ‘Unbowed’ (2006), her autobiography; ‘The Challenge for Africa’ (2008), and ‘Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World’ (2010).

Maathai is survived by her three children -Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

‘Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.

‘You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.’

If no one applauds this great woman of Africa, the trees surely will.


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