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‘The best tribute we can pay to this great woman of Africa is to continue to organise so that we can gain higher levels of spiritual awareness and build the shared values for peace and social justice across the planet,' writes Horace Campbell.

‘In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves’ – Wangari Maathai

The implantation of British rule was brutal across the continent, particularly in Kenya. Out of this brutality has emerged a society that is continuously seeking to repair itself and repair Africa. This is the promise and numerous Africans have stepped forward to keep this promise. Kenyans have used many forms of struggle to organise for a new society: Legal, political, intellectual, moral, environmental, economic and spiritual. It is in this process of repair that Kenya has continued to be one of the firm bases for Pan-Africanism and African renewal and for new healthy humans.

This week, the material world lost one such Kenyan who has made her mark on the world, Wangari Maathai. She joined the ancestors but left her imprint along with those Kenyans who made the promise that Africa will be free and the environment will be reconstructed by thinking human beings. Wangari Maathai built a movement to reclaim the earth. She wrote, she campaigned and she toiled within the ranks of those who wanted a united and democratic Africa (in the ranks of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC). She struggled for over 40 years, developing new strategies of mobilisation to reclaim nature from the current destructive forms of production and consumption. Although her contribution to numerous movements in Africa will be celebrated, she is now known as one of the foremost internationalist and environmentalist of the Green Belt Movement of Kenya. As an African feminist who broke through the barriers imposed by the hierarchies in neocolonial Kenya, she had to be principled to survive the storms of chauvinism, regionalism, masculinity and repression. Yet, in the society where she made such a sterling contribution, her transition has refocused attention on the central link between health and gender. It is a reinforcement of the reality that a society cannot be free at the social and political level without the facilities for health care for all.


Wangari Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in Nyeri district of Kenya. This is a District in the Central Province of that East African society that saw its share of cruelty, repression and barbarism of British colonialism. It was from this district where many of the top leaders of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army emerged. Dedan Kimathi, who is now a national hero, was born in this district and is the most well-known of those sons and daughters of Central Province of Kenya. Kimathi fought against the British and his courage and bravery informed the stories of African independence beyond the borders of Kenya. It was a district that saw its share of freedom fighters and Home Guards. (The Home Guards were those Kenyans who collaborated with the colonial overlords). Wangari Maathai grew up as a teenager in the midst of this ferment and was herself chosen to serve the interests of those who wanted to forever dominate Africa. She refused. While accessing western education she never turned her back on the intellectual and spiritual resources of the village community. In fact, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, in her acceptance speech, she acknowledged the fact that a lot of what she had learnt about environmental protection came from her childhood experiences in the village community of Nyeri in rural Kenya

In this tussle between Home Guards and those with their eyes on freedom, Britain deployed numerous tools to maintain the exploitation of the peoples. The establishment of the British Gulag was accompanied by an intensified effort to train a cadre of Kenyans who were supposed to be ‘modern’ and opposed to the ‘atavistic and barbaric’ forces who were called Mau Mau. Frank Kitson, the British military expert who refined the weaponising of anthropology developed tools of counter-insurgency in Kenya that have been refined and used in other parts of the imperial military world. A component of this low intensity campaign was the educational system that was to teach the superiority of western civilisation and groom new allies who were ‘responsible Africans.’ These were the Africans taken to boarding schools so that the stories of the freedom fighters would not pollute their minds and inspire their hopes. Wangari Maathai, like so many promising Kenyans of that era was trained to turn her back on the people of Nyeri district and the struggle for freedom in Africa.

British propaganda had mobilised the resources of the Anglo-American media to promote the ‘modernised’ types. Through the colonial institutions of socialisation and political mobilisation –churches, mosques, schools, social clubs, etc – the British imperialists worked hard to suppress the national liberation movement while putting in place an intricate hierarchy based on race, gender, ethnicity and regionalism. By the time of the explosion of the war for independence in Kenya, the United States security planners had moved in to support the British project of maintaining external control over Africa with Kenya as its beachhead. The US government organised an airlift of students from Kenya to the United States and Wangari Maathai was a beneficiary of this airlift. But she did not internalise the ideas of western consumerism and worship of the god of capital. She used the opportunity to educate herself and became the first woman PhD in Veterinary medicine in East Africa and the first professor in that field of study in Kenya.


Yet Wangari Maathai was not carried away by her professorship. Her training and education was used to strengthen the organisational capabilities of women in Kenya and she became the national chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya. During the period of the dictatorship in Kenya she had to develop the political skills to work with women in a way where the autonomy of the organisation could be maintained. For her work among women and because she refused to be cowed by men and by the state, she was labelled a ‘crazy’ woman. She became well known because of her work among grassroots women in Kenya in building the Green Belt Movement. The idea of a grassroots environmental movement in Kenya gave birth to one component of a larger global project that is now called the environmental justice movement.


Working tirelessly, nationally, across Africa and internationally, Wangari Maathai pierced through the manipulation of self-help schemes that were actually being used by politicians to enrich themselves and to oppress the people. The idea of Harambee (African self-reliance) had been co-opted by the ruling elite in Kenya to disorganise and divide the poor, especially the Kikuyu peasantry who had fought in the independence struggle but who were being manipulated by the capitalists among the Kikuyu. These capitalists mobilised ethnic chauvinism to divide Kenyans. Because of the work of women such as Wangari Maathai, the ethnic chauvinists mobilised young and unemployed males in order to act as a force to demobilise the working class in Nairobi and the Kenyan heartland. This force of manipulated young Kikuyus is sometimes called Mungiki. In 2008 we saw the fruits of this demobilisation when organised violence reinforced the theft of democracy. The ethnic chauvinists (called tribalists) who controlled the levers of banks and new speculative capital in Eastern Africa were called hyenas; these hyenas wanted to deny Kenyans the promise that this space should be a beacon for decency and justice.

Wangari Maathai and decent women in Kenya worked hard to rise above this manipulation in order to keep the promise of dignity and freedom. The Green Belt Movement was a broad based movement, which had as its core mission a project to reclaim the earth. More than 40 years ago, it was clear that the forms of economic engagement in Africa was destroying the earth and speeding desertification across the continent. Today we can see the evidence of this environmental degradation with the reality that the impact of global warming will decimate millions across Africa. We know that Africa leads the world in forest fires and that forests, which cover 20 per cent of Africa, are disappearing faster in Africa than on any other continent. Wangari Maathai grasped these realities decades ago and in 1977 in an effort to save the forests and the planet earth worked with other grassroots women to plant millions of trees to save the earth and to reclaim spaces of hope. The Green Belt Movement has planted close to 50 million trees and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) now recognise this tree planting effort as a central aspect of the struggle to repair the earth.


Wangari Maathai organised a self-help project to empower women, establish self-confidence among them and to stand up to oppressors. Because of the intensity of the oppression in Kenya, she had to devise novel forms of organising for social justice. But social justice could not follow a straight path based on good leaders such as Maathai. She was tested over many years by incarceration, banishment, grounding and other forms of intimidation. She did not bow. She has also recorded that tenacity in her own words in the book, ‘Unbowed’. Many of us heard about the heroic struggles to keep spaces of community solidarity open in Kenya. Uhuru Park in Nairobi and Jevanjeee Gardens are two such public spaces where she made her contribution, by ensuring that people had access to these spaces. Other grassroots movements in Kenya now benefit from these green spaces and one such Kenyan movement, Bunge la Mwananchi, is challenged to keep the promise of Kenya and to learn from Wangari Maathai that the leadership role of women cannot be based on tokenism. Kenya is the capital of the NGOisation of social movements in Africa and progressive forces have to devise new ways every day to navigate through the traps of cooptation and corruption of the ideas of social power of the poor.


Wangari Maathai has left many lessons for grassroots organisation on how to navigate the snakepit of NGO politics. When imperial power recognised the work of Wangari Maathai, the United Nations Environment Program, (UNEP) sought to tap into her experiences as an organiser. Yet, the United Nations operatives in Kenya could not see that environmental justice could not come from simply working with donor agencies. Environmental justice will only come from a change in the system. We saw this clearly at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Wangari Maathai was very present at this meeting where the environmental justice forces from the South came to the understanding that the question of climate change was not one of finances, but one that involved system change.

From all corners of the world this call for system change is inspiring initiatives to educate and mobilise the grassroots. Whether it is in the Niger Delta of West Africa, in rural China, in Europe or Latin America there is a worldwide movement to reclaim the earth. In Latin America, the indigenous movement has recognised this need for system change and it is from Bolivia where we have been signalled that there will be new first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. From Bolivia we have heard of The Law of Mother Earth, which was agreed on at an international meeting of April 2010. This Law of Mother Earth redefines Bolivia’s rich mineral deposits as ‘blessings’ and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry. In the African philosophy of Ubuntu, humans and nature share the biosphere and our ancestors taught us to respect nature and eschew the idea of domination over nature.


Slowly, the promise of those who are fighting for a new earth is gaining ground, and in her passing, Wangari Maathai has again shone the light on the need to save Africa and to save the forests. Those who believe that this is an overnight project falter quickly. This was the experience of the Pan African Green belt movement. Working from the inspiration of Wangari Maathai and other Kenyan women, there had been an attempt to develop the Pan African Greenbelt movement in 1986. Those who placed themselves at the leadership of this exercise did not realise that planting trees and watching them grow require a new kind of political engagement. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance is a new kind of Pan Africanism and the aspiring forces from this formation will do well to read very carefully the words of Wangari Maathai. She has left her writings for us to consider. From Bolivia, those who are struggling for the rights of Mother Earth have outlined the same rights that Wangari Maathai articulated in the African context. The declaration of the Bolivians on the rights of Mother Earth outlined the following rights: The right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. This declaration was reminder that the struggles that Wangari Maathai engaged in Kenya was part of a worldwide struggle.

Imperial planners, ever adept at cooptation, are now planning to co-opt the ideas of this movement that is growing in all corners of the world. After nearly a decade of promoting ‘sustainable development’ the World Bank has suddenly become an environmental movement with its new mantra being ‘Green growth.’ The thinkers within the bank cannot see the contradiction between the terms 'green' and 'growth'.


Wangari Maathai had pierced through these contradictions and came to the understanding that spiritual renewal is central to environmental justice. In her book, ‘Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World’, she wrote:

‘Through my experiences and observations, I have come to believe that the physical destruction of the earth extends to us, too. If we live in an environment that's wounded—where the water is polluted, the air is filled with soot and fumes, the food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust—it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves.’

Many of us did not know how wounded Wangari had been by the cancerous conditions that degrade all of us. Her struggles with ovarian cancer should be another prod for those who connect all forms of struggle to understand that health, life, environment and peace are all interconnected. She was a living example of this interconnection. When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, there were those who did not understand the interconnections between, peace, the environment and health but now Wangari Maathai has reminded us of that link. She wrote simply that, ‘In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves.’

Wangari Maathai kept her promise to the people of Kenya and of Africa. Those who are still in the material world have a beacon to follow in keeping the promise of Nyeri district, Dedan Kimathi and Wangari Maathai. Kenya remains in the news because of the intensity of the freedom struggle that continues in that corner of Africa. Whether it is the ongoing case of reparative justice relating to the British Gulag that is winding through the British courts and intellectual system, the legal questions of criminal violence that is before the International Criminal Court, the day to day democratic struggles or the massive drought and famine in East Africa, we understand that Kenya is at the centre of the struggle for a new world. As one young Kenyan student said to me, Wangari Maathai showed young women in Kenya that they can achieve leadership roles by dedicating themselves to struggle. This student stated clearly that Wangari Maathai showed that in the struggle, women did not have to take a back seat to men.

The best tribute we can pay to this great woman of Africa is to continue to organise so that we can gain higher levels of spiritual awareness and build the shared values for peace and social justice across the planet.


* Horace Campbell is professor of African-American studies and political science at Syracuse University. He is the author of ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA’. See