By Jaime Seltzer
Wangari Maathai grew up in a lush, rural area of Kenya in 1940. She earned both her graduate and undergraduate degrees in the United States in the 1960s, and then worked on earning her doctoral degree in Germany and Nairobi, making her the first woman to earn a doctoral degree in East and Central Africa in 1971. She was also a professor at the University of Nairobi.
Wangari’s years of travel abroad allowed her a perspective that others did not have. She saw the suffering of her people as needless, when many others saw it as simply the way things were. She joined the National Council of Women of Kenya and became even more informed, and therefore even more outraged.
On Earth Day in 1977, Maathai hosted a meeting about the environment. Women from rural and urban areas came to speak, discussing a litany of concerns that were harrowing: there was not enough wood to collect firewood. The water was not clean; it tasted of the chemicals used to fertilize the crops of nearby farms. Fruit and vegetables were scarce and pricy, and when they could be obtained, they did not seem to have the nutritive value that these women personally remembered from their own childhoods. The conclusion was inescapable: over the past two or three decades alone, the land had withered around them. Moreover, Maathai noted that the women who spoke felt helpless to do anything to change what was happening to their land and their livelihoods.
The National Council of Women suggested planting trees as a potential solution.
Trees help hold the soil in place, helping to prevent erosion; they could provide shade for plants that need that protection to grow; and they could be sources of food for people and livestock. Moreover, planting trees was something that the women of Kenya could do with practically no help or further instruction, and begin nursing the land back to life immediately.
Wangari spearheaded the effort, with the ambitious goal of planting fifteen million trees in Kenya. A local forester promised her as many tree seedlings as she and her colleagues would plant, but he soon was forced to rescind the offer, because Wangari and her group were planting seedlings too fast for him to keep up! The Green Belt Movement gave the women of Kenya something to nurture, something to grow: a way to affect their own well-being and that of their community for the better. The idea spread from woman to woman, and from community to community. Soon, even other countries had taken up the idea.
But Wangari wasn’t done – not by a long shot. She heard that Kenya’s president, Daniel Arap Moi, planned to build Africa’s tallest skyscraper in the middle of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, one of the city’s only green spaces. Next to the sixty-two story building, he planned on raising a gigantic statue of himself, tall enough that visitors could pat his head from the fourth floor.
Wangari was incensed. Not only would this rob the people of Nairobi of their public park, it was an unimaginably expensive endeavor for which Kenya would have to borrow money! She began speaking out against the project.
Security forces visited Maathai, ordering her to stop her criticisms. The police threatened and detained her, even though no one pressed charges, and finally she was beaten in order to try and force her to stop speaking out. Many other people would have given up.
But Wangari was made of sterner stuff. She took the president to court, arguing that he was an elected official and that the park was public land; Moi did not have the right to suddenly seize that land for his own use. Though she did not win, President Moi’s financial backers were convinced of the right of Wangari’s case, and refused to fund the project anymore. Moi was forced to leave the park to the people.
Predictably, politicians began to turn against Maathai, calling her and all of the Green Belters “a bunch of divorcées”. This was the critics’ way of saying that a woman without a husband could get up to all kinds of trouble! The government also depicted Maathai as an outsider, someone with a European and American education who was leading good, African women astray. They spoke out against education itself, implying that this sort of un-womanly behavior was the result. The Kenyan Parliament discussed criminalizing membership in the Green Belt Movement, which they saw as subversive and corrupting.
“Whatever else you may think about the women who run the Green Belt movement,” Wangari responded, “we are dealing… with the rights of the public and the rights of the people. These are the kind of issues that require the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck.”
Wangari’s next battle wasn’t over green space in the city: it was about the lives of young, Kenyan men who had been arrested for participating in a demonstration against the Kenyan government. These men’s mothers approached Maathai, and they planned a protest in the newly-reclaimed park.
At first, police waited for the women to disperse. That did not stop the government or the police from issuing threats, however, one of which was to mutilate Wangari’s body if she did not convince the women to stop their protest.
By the fifth day, police entered the park and beat the women. Wangari herself was beaten so badly that she was knocked unconscious and spent the next several days in the hospital. The other women were placed into vehicles and driven away from the park; but the next day they returned, grim-faced, to continue their protest and to ensure that those who had ended up at the hospital were still alive. They ended up hiding at a nearby church, which offered the women sanctuary. The police refused to break down the door of the church, and so the women stayed.
For months and months, they stayed.
The government tried to bribe the women. We want our sons back, they said. The government even brought the young men to see their mothers and ordered them to implore their mothers to leave. The women refused. The government threatened the women. They stood firm.
After a year of protest, the women’s sons were released to them in 1992.
Soon after, there were rumors that President Moi would institute martial law – that is, turn the governing of the country over to the army. The Green Belt Movement issued a statement saying that if Moi felt a change was in order, then perhaps he would sponsor a general election.
The response was a warrant for Wangari’s arrest for “inciting the people to violence”. Wangari holed up in her home and refused to emerge. The police ended up using glass-cutters on her window in order to make the arrest.
Despite the government’s protests, in 2002 Moi stepped down, and the government held its first democratic election. Wangari Maathai was elected to parliament with 95% of the popular vote, and assumed the role of the Assistant Secretary for Environment, Wildlife, and Natural Resources.
Three years later, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her conservation efforts and for her acts of peaceful protest.
Perhaps it’s unsurprising that, when Wangari ran into President Moi at a wedding later that year that she engaged in pleasant small-talk with the ex-dictator rather than strangle him with extreme prejudice.
Wangari passed away when she was only in her sixties, but her legacy remains in the land and livelihoods she helped to save: in the way she connected peace to prosperity, to environmental change, to the rights of women, to democratic principles, to the bone-deep understanding that a single individual’s work can shake the foundations of her society with the combination of righteousness, persistence, and fearlessness. She went on to fight for victims of AIDS and take world leaders to task on climate change.
As of 2015, the Green Belt Movement has planted fifty-one million trees in Kenya alone.
More are planted every day.
Gilson, D. (2005, January 5). “I Will Disappear Into the Forest”: An Interview With Wangari Maathai. Mother Jones. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2005/01/root-causes-interview-wangari-maathai
Maathai, W. (2000, May 4). Speak Truth to Power. In The Green Belt Movement. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/key-speeches-and-articles/speak-truth-to-power
Maathai, W. (2009, September 22). Statement by Prof. W. Maathai, Nobel Peace Laureate, on behalf of Civil Society. In The Green Belt Movement. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.un.org/wcm/webdav/site/climatechange/shared/Documents/SpeechMaathai.pdf
Wangari Maathai – Biographical. Nobelprize.org. Nobel Media AB 2014. Retrieved September 18, 2015, from http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html