The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Who’s an inspirational leader?

I’d say somebody like her, Prof. Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement. An activist and a thinker who was able to explain the linkages between poverty, lack of democracy and environment degradation.

The video that follows can serve as an introduction to this fascinating personality, her fight and life:

3 thoughts on “The Vision of Wangari Maathai

  1. Thanks for sharing this Andrea, I also had one for her as Eulogy and this is what I wrote about this great African woman: Too Many yet So Little: A Eulogy of One African Woman.
    Over the weekend, I attended a final journey and paid homage to one of the most celebrated African women. I am saying she was celebrated NOT because she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to obtain a PhD; neither because she was the first woman to head a department at the University of Nairobi nor because she was the first African woman to win the most coveted Nobel Peace Prize that she was awarded in 2004. It is a fact that in her 71-year-old life, she won over 30 awards and has received honorary doctoral degrees from 7 universities around the world, featured in a number of publications and wrote her autobiography titled; Unbowed, just to mention but a few of her achievements. Some questions must come into any person’s mind. What could have brought all this accolades? What did she do that other women did not? Why do I consider her special?
    Born in Tetu, Central Kenya in 1940 to a very humble background, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai attended a Catholic school, Loreto, in Limuru before proceeding on a scholarship under Kennedy airlift of bright African students to USA earning her bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College, Kansas in 1964. She later joined the University of Pittsburgh for her Master’s of Science degree in 1966. She began her doctorate studies in Germany before heading back to Kenya to find a teaching job at the University of Nairobi where she also earned her PhD in 1971 and would later devote to lecture in the same university for the rest of her life.
    Ironically, there are a number of things that supports the strong foundation for this tribute. In 1977, a woman’s association was founded that quickly spread through the rural areas, captured the imagination of educated and uneducated women alike, earned the lasting impression and respect of the international and local environmental and development communities, and was first praised and then bitterly and brutally condemned by the Moi regime. Green Belt Movement is an association that was initiated by Prof. Wangari Maathai, by then a two-term chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya, under whose auspices the movement was conceived. In the process of championing for environmental justice, Maathai incorporated the fight for human rights and began opposing the male dominated political establishment in Kenya.
    Green Belt Movement is a grass-roots environmental organization encouraging tree planting by women and children for future generations. Its members have planted millions of seedlings since the late 1970s and the idea has spread to other countries in East and Central Africa including Tanzania, Sudan, Rwanda, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, and D.R. Congo among others. Its volunteers also promote environmental education in Kenyan primary schools. Both nationally and regionally, the movement’s impetus derives from the dynamism of Maathai and from the specter of desertification, drought, and famine raised in the early 1980s.
    The movement’s and particularly Maathai’s initial friction with the government was a long face-off at Karura Forest. The government had hived off part of the forest (within Nairobi) to give out to private investors and party loyalists. The forest was fenced off and destruction had begun to give way to private development. A battle ensued between the private investors and government on one side and the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations and members of the public on the other. In many a times, Maathai and her supporters were brutally dispersed, arrested and locked up in cells for several days without trial. In one of the incidences at Karura, her plaited hair was severely chopped off, causing extensive bodily harm to her by a group of hired thugs and law enforcing agencies. Eventually, the frequent and persistent protests managed to scare off investors and restore the forest cover and Karura remains a gazetted (protected) forest manned by Kenya Forest Service.
    Despite its common-interest goals and the support it used to receive from the government in the past regime, the movement was drawn into a lot of political controversy during the time of the country’s demand for plural politics in Kenya in late 1980s and early 90s. At one point in her speech to thousands of its members, Maathai argued thus:
    I think the Green Belt Movement appears threatening because it is organizing ordinary people, poor people, and it is empowering them – telling them that they can cause positive change to their environment and that they can do it on their own. African governments do not encourage and have not yet accepted the fact that the people can direct their own destiny. They want to guide them and they want to be followed blindly. They do not want their people informed or organized because organized groups threaten their position.
    Such comments and organizations accorded Prof. Wangari both friends and fore alike. It is a fact some of his comments rub the then present regime the wrong way and this was projected during President Moi’s Independence Day speech of December 12th 1989 where he singled out Maathai and the Green Belt Movement in a wide-ranging attack on critics of his record on political practices, human rights, and environmental issues. In question was the construction of the 60 storey commercial building in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, the city’s only extensive green space to be financed mainly by government-guaranteed foreign loans, the $200 million Kenyan Times Media Trust tower would have been the tallest structure in Africa and was intended to house the headquarters of KANU and several ancillary organizations, including the party’s newspaper and Kenya’s second television station. It was also to feature as its centerpiece a large statue of President Moi. Some criticized the proposal for its excessive cost and for the questionable connection it created between KANU and the British press magnate Robert Maxwell. Maathai protested it on environmental grounds, pointing to the loss of Uhuru Park and to the shadow the structure would cast over its immediate vicinity.
    On behalf of Green Belt, Wangari filed suit to halt construction pending the completion of an environmental impact assessment. When this motion was thrown out of court, she approached the attorney general, who declined to respond. Maathai was then denounced in parliament, and one day after the president’s speech, the movement was given two weeks to vacate its offices. The following day, this deadline was reduced to 24 hours. The president had accused Maathai of urging Kenyan women to show disrespect their men and on December 15th, the KANU women’s organization, Maendeleo ya Wanawake called on the party to revoke her membership. An assistant minister in the president’s office had already complained that he did not appreciate such criticism coming from what he described as a group of disaffected divorcees. The then Member of Parliament for Mt. Elgon went so far as to ban her from his constituency.
    Green Belt Movement probably suffered under this assault, which might have frightened many women away. In fact at a certain point in the period, Maathai could not meet face to face with some members or friends because of fear of associating with her. In something of anticlimax, the project was indefinitely suspended and apparently shelved for quite different reasons. In February 1990, donors announced that the Times Media Trust project entailed greater expense than Kenya could afford to incur and still expect to receive foreign financial credits and aid. For Prof. Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, however, this incident demonstrated the dangers of public protest against the will of Daniel Arap Moi and his one-party state. But to majority of Kenyans who were yearning for a democratic space, the wave of protest and the outcome changed the political landscape and built confidence that the single party regime can be challenged ‘by just a single woman’.
    As if this was not enough, at the height of political turmoil in the wake of multi-party struggles in Kenya, political rallies were violently dispersed by police and many rioters who were caught were beaten senselessly by the police before being herded off to jail. This succeeded the Mwakenya movement in the 1980s that Moi charged of masterminding the 1982 coup attempt, and by early 1987 more than a hundred persons had been detained for subversive behavior, including arms smuggling along the Kenya’s western border. Most of those who were detained were ethnic Luos and Kikuyus who were widely believed to be dissidents of the regime. It was this detention without trial that triggered Maathai’s action. In 1992, she mobilized a group of women, mothers of political prisoners to fast in protest over political detentions at the same Uhuru Park she helped protect its destruction. The women went ahead to threaten stripping naked if their demands are not met which they later did when police brutally tried to disperse the protest. Prof. Maathai was tear-gassed and beaten unconsciously in the melee but from her hospital bed, she announced that the fasting would resume on church grounds adjacent to Uhuru Park. She also called for the international community to prevent Kenya from disintegrating into chaos. That area in Uhuru Park is named Freedom Corner.
    After the regime changed section 2(a) in December 1991 of the constitution to give way for multiparty politics, Maathai joined the then popular opposition party, Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) embraced by several young professionals famously know then as “young turks” who had been in the vanguard of Moi’s opponents. In September 1998, she became co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, which seeks debt cancellation for African countries. From then she joined active politics and was elected Tetu Member of Parliament in 2002 after the fall of KANU regime and appointed as an Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and Wildlife by president Kibaki. It was during this period that she won the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for her outstanding role in championing for democracy, human rights, environmental justice in 2004. But this was not to last as during the campaign for a new constitution in 2005; she again went against the grain and was together with a couple of other ministers fired from cabinet for opposing the controversial government sponsored constitution. The government lost at the referendum conducted that same year. In the same year 2005, Maathai was elected the Presiding Officer of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) of the African Union to advise the African Union on issues related to African civil society and this was the time I first and last met her at personal level. She again tried her hand in politics in 2007 but lost her seat though continued fighting for environment and good governance in Africa. She was appointed a Goodwill Ambassador to Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem to advocate for conservation and protection of the forest. Apart from the Green Belt Movement, she founded Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi and the Nobel Women’s Initiative among others.
    Prof. Wangari Maathai passed on an icon to many, both men and women with outstanding achievements no one can easily match at Nairobi Hospital on 25th September 2011after another long struggle with ovarian cancer. The nation and indeed the whole world were in mourning! There were outpouring of condolences, prayers and support all over the world in press, social networks, and other media and from various quarters. Some days after her demise, the government of Kenya announced a state burial for her. She again became the first woman in Kenya to be accorded a state burial and a third person (after the founding president, Jomo Kenyatta in 1978 and the then Vice President Michael Kijana Wamalwa in August 2003) in Kenya. The final journey was marked by a tree planting ceremony on Saturday 8th October, performance of official (state) rites in her honour and inter-faith prayers at Uhuru Park (Freedom Corner) the same date and month she received the prestigious award in 2004 and a day after 2 other African women and a Yemeni shared the same award. What a coincidence! The ceremony was attended by among others; President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka, Cabinet ministers, MPs, members of the diplomatic core, and thousands of members of the public. All the speakers showered praise on her personality and achievements and said the world and particularly Kenya have lost a great woman. Members of public were also allowed to pay their last respect both at Freedom Corner and along the route from Lee Funeral Home to Kariokor Crematorium where her final rites were conducted, a private ceremony where only close family members were allowed to witness. Deliberately and as expected though, the former president Daniel Arap Moi, whose regime Maathai regularly criticized, did not attend the function. Mockingly, the same Kenyan police that were used by the regime to brutally torture her gave her an escort at her death.

    But the questions that still linger in my and perhaps many people’s mind is; why should the government only recognize her just after death? Are these crocodile tears? Why was she given an assistant minister in 2002 and not a full minister by the same president? Why did this same government (president) fire her from cabinet in 2005 after taking her right position? The truth is that when she was alive, Maathai received very little attention in Kenya yet was much respected globally.
    We can just make assumptions in trying to find answers to the myriad questions. One assumption is that during the same time Maathai criticized the former regime, the current president (Mwai Kibaki) was serving as the Vice President and the current Vice President (Kalonzo Musyoka) was serving as a Cabinet Minister. This might be a postponed enmity! It is also right to assume that the current government might be promising democracy and socio-economic changes in our system yet they are still conservative and bent in supporting the status quo. And this can be qualified by the grand corruption that has dogged it since the year 2002, tribalism, nepotism, destruction of the environment and the sharp rise in inflation rate currently being witnessed in the country. Another assumption could be that because she was a woman, she had her rightful place in the African society and should not have achieved that much than men. She might have just been ignored out of her status as an African woman! The last assumption would relate to both political and ethnic competition. She was a political activist with huge following among women across the country and this could have threatened the current political leadership and by extension she hailed from the backyard and vote-rich tribe of the current president in Nyeri and Kikuyu respectively. She could easily divide the votes and contest for the highest office given her vision, strength and fame!
    The body was cremated and her remains will be interred within the Democratic Space at the Wangari Maathai’s Institute of Peace and Environmental Studies according to her wish.
    Rest in Peace Mama Earth, Mama Environment, Mama Green Belt and our own mother! We shall miss your physical presence but we shall live forever with what you had initiated. We can only celebrate your life and you will remain an icon and a role model the Humming Bird!

    1. Thank you Oluma for this beautiful Elogy. We have to keep spreading her example around the world and in our communities

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