A post this Michaelmas about an incredible lady we lost this week, a lady almost entirely unknown in the States.

Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize back in 2004. At the time, I was a little puzzled. Maathai was given the award for her work with the Green Belt Movement she founded. She was presented by the media as an environmentalist, not just a tree-hugger, but a tree-planter as well. As she said in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture:  “The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.”  

Well-said, but the connection between her work and the great task of world peace was far from intuitive. But a piece I read in today’s Daily Nation makes the connection plain:

In times of arranged marriages, girls (who never went to school) in the village could only independently meet young men who were not picked for them by their parents when they went to the well or to the forest to collect firewood.

At the same time, the forest was a source of bondage and discrimination because the girls were condemned to collect firewood, while the boys went to school.

One of the most complex contradictions of our times developed.

In one sense, it seemed necessary for the forest to go away for women in African villages to find freedom.

But when the forest went away, things got worse. Women walked longer distances for firewood.

Over the years, we solved the problem of water [in some places -Ed]. We dug boreholes and safe wells. But the forests just kept disappearing.

So the fight to protect the forest, had essentially to be a fight for women’s rights.

The latter required that you challenge the political order, that most women of Maathai’s generation were too isolated and feared the resulting rejection, to do. However, Maathai did.

In that sense, she was not just the original environmentalist, but also one of the region’s pioneer feminists.

But women’s rights make little sense in an undemocratic context. So Maathai became a democracy activist.

(and met Oprah)

“A Strong-Minded Woman”

Wangari Muta had the kind of life Hollywood loves to make movies about (Spielberg, get on this!). In her youth, she was sensitive to the environmental damage she saw under the British colonization. She recounted in her Nobel Peace Prize lecture:

 “As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water… I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.

Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.”

This budding ecologist went to study in the US thanks to a program started by Senator John F. Kennedy — part of the same batch of 300 Kenyan students which included President Barack Obama’s father. After completing her master’s degree, she returned to Kenya and married Mwangi Mathai. While her husband pursued a career in politics, she focused on raising three children and becoming the first woman in all of East Africa to get a PhD. Her husband filed for divorce, accusing her of being “too strong-minded.” After criticizing the judge who granted the divorce, she spent 6 months in jail for “contempt of court.” When her ex-husband demanded she stop using his last name, she simply added an extra “a” in defiance.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 because, in her words,

“I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

The women we worked with recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs. This was due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming, which replaced the growing of household food crops. But international trade controlled the price of the exports from these small-scale farmers and a reasonable and just income could not be guaranteed. I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.”

Maathai quickly found herself blacklisted by the political establishment of President Moi’s regime and was jailed repeatedly as she increasingly turned her focus to political action. Drives to register voters and protest the laws banning freedom of expression were repressed. When Moi tried to enrich his cronies through building a 60-story skyscraper in Uhuru Park (imagine Obama trying to get a giant skyscraper complete with parking for 2000 cars and a giant statue of himself put up on the National Mall and you’ll get some idea of Moi’s audacity), Wangari Maathai spearheaded the campaign against it. Moi responded by evicting the Green Belt Movement from its offices and auditing it. But the protests Maathai led brought so much negative international attention to the project that its foreign backers withdrew and the effort collapsed.

Maathai used her new-found international celebrity to organize protests and hunger strikes for free elections and the release of political prisoners, earning her more jail time and beatings. After Moi finally allowed multiparty elections, Maathai dedicated her tree-planting efforts to healing the wounds from tribal violence that Moi had instigated after the 1992 elections (violence that recurred after the elections in 1997 and 2007). She won a seat in Parliament in the first truly free and fair elections in 2002 and became Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. Two years later, she won the Nobel Peace Prize.

In Wangari Maathai’s life, we can see how the greatest problems Kenya (and the world) faces are all interrelated: environmental degradation and desertification and global warming; the deadly culture of patriarchy; acceptance of corruption and impunity; appeals to violence and resistance to needed reforms for the sake of “the tribe” (whether an ethnic, religious, political, or nation-state group). This tangled nest of problems will take a very long time and many many more Wangari Maathai’s to untangle. At a time when a nation devastated by famine (induced by the global climate change and massive deforestation Maathai warned about) finds itself with leaders concerned only with personal enrichment and at a time when “austerity fever” in Western nations has prompted proposals to cut foreign aid and environmental protection laws while giving subsidies to giant oil companies, it’s clear we need more people with the spirit and compassion of Wangari Maathai.

“It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own – indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other.

That time is now.”