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In The Spotlight: Wangari Maathai

Category: black history month

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

Renowned social, environmental and political activist. First African woman to win the Nobel Prize. Pro-democracy and women’s rights campaigner. Intellectual. Wangari Maathai was a truly prolific human being. She is a name we should all know by heart and even in death her work enriches the world. It is people like this who stand up for what they believe in, risk their freedom, their family and their home to improve the lives of others and the planet as a whole. We’d like to share a little of her story with you here. 

Maathai was born to a Kikuyu family on April 1, 1940 in Ihithe, in what was then, colonial Kenya. The family moved to a white-owned farm where her father found work. It wasn’t until she was eight that she was able to start her schooling joining her brothers at the local primary. At 11 she moved to a boarding school where she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism and graduated top of the class. She gained entry to Loreto High School in Limuru to continue her studies. At the age of 20 she was selected under the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ along with 300 other students to study in the US. 

During her time studying biology, chemistry and German in Kansas, and then taking a masters in Biology at the University of Pittsburgh, she had her first taste of environmental activism seeing environmentalists try to rid the city of air pollution. In 1966 she received her MSc in biological sciences. She then returned to Kenya to start a role at University College Nairobi, but this was when she encountered resistance. 

She turned up to start her new job and was told that it had been given to someone else, which she felt was because she was female and tribal bias. It wasn’t until 1967 that she was able to pursue her doctorate, and had to travel to Germany to study. She returned to Nairobi a year later where she could continue her studies as an assistant lecturer back at University College Nairobi. She married and became pregnant with her first child. In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD.

Maathai continued to achieve firsts. She was the first to be appointed to senior positions, eventually becoming associate professor in 1977. She began to exercise her political aspirations, campaigning for equality for women in the university and trying to forge a union. She took on additional civic duties including becoming director of the Kenya Red Cross Society, being on the board of the Environmental Liaison Centre, eventually becoming board chair. With these and many other projects Maathai decided to take make environmental activism, and equality for women her primary focus, seeing both at the heart of Kenya’s problems. 

In 1977 she initiated the first Green Belt, which later became the Green Belt Movement, which she founded. She encouraged the planting of trees, and in particular, encouraged women to get involved and take up the environmental campaign. The campaign was more than just planting trees, it was about a deeper environmental conservation and women’s rights. She instilled the importance of communities taking action and ownership of local needs. In her own words, "We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change." [source

During this time her marriage fell apart. Her husband, unable to cope with her prolific place in society, filed for divorce stating that she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her". He trawled her through the press publicly accusing her of being unfaithful. His spite and determination (and the judges own prejudices) led to the judge ruling in his favour. The judge found her in contempt of court and sentenced her to six months in jail. She was released after three days having proven the idiocy of such a ruling. The split tore the family apart. Incurring the expensive court fees and losing the dual income, she was left with her small wage from the university. She had to take a job which took her to Zambia, with extensive travel throughout Africa and she had to leave her children behind with their father. All of this turmoil for male pride and patriarchal bigotry.

Showing characteristic strength against adversity she resigned from her position at the university, as required by law, to campaign for the Parliamentary seat of her home region, Nyeri. She was refused by the courts to run and a judge disqualified her from running on a technicality. She believed these to be false and illegal. Having been rejected with no hope of pursuing her ambitions she requested her job back at the university. This was denied and she was evicted from her home which was previously provided by the university. It was clear that she wasn’t a welcome voice in her country. In the late 1980’s the government continued to crackdown on Maathai and brought back a model akin to the colonial-era, opposing democratic rights and prohibiting groups from meeting without a licence. 

In 1989 Maathai led an environmental campaign against the building of a huge media, trade and shopping complex in Uhuru Park. She protested to all the organisations involved both at home and abroad. The government refused to communicate, instead running smear campaigns through the press notably labeling her as a “crazy woman” and “divorcee”. President Moi even stated that she should be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. The government attempted to shut down the green belt movement and force them out of existence. Maathai’s grit and determination and vocal prowess on the global stage led to the construction to be cancelled. Foreign investors had buckled to the negative media coverage and her protests withdrawing their investments. This led to the project being cancelled and a win for Maathai.

During the early 1990’s she pushed for pro-democracy and faced assassination and a government coup. Through her work with the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy she was arrested and jailed. The charges were soon dropped but only under pressure from foreign figures including Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy. She and her fellow activists continued to protest against the imprisonment of political activists, and in turn were brutally beaten and eventually hospitalised in their pursuit of justice. Maathai and many other strong women, campaigned until most political prisoners were freed in 1993. Throughout this time Maathai was celebrated and awarded outside of Kenya, but held with contempt and deep suspicion in her own country. 

The 90’s heralded a focus on pro-democracy for Maathai, against a backdrop of much political and social unrest in Kenya. However, the environmental agenda was still at the core of her campaigns. Maathai took on the government in the late 90’s as they pushed to privatise large areas of public land in the Karura Forest for nefarious use. Once again she faced violence and during the peaceful process of attempting to plant a tree her and her supporters were attacked. The attack was filmed and soon circulated causing international outrage. The youth of Nairobi stood up and took the government to task, facing a very real violence themselves. By mid-August 1999 the president was defeated after months of protest and banned allocation of public land.

Within two years the government reneged on their promise and planned to distribute public land to its financiers. Maathai was arrested on multiple occasions throughout her repeated attempts to protect her land. The early 2000’s took her to Yale, where she taught as a visiting fellow. She again campaigned for parliament, this time under the National Rainbow Coalition. In December 2002 they defeated the ruling Kenya African National Union, and Maathai won an overwhelming victory of 98% for her place in the Tetu Constituency. She had fought hard and in January of the following year she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. She also founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 to allow candidates to run on a platform of conservation as embodied by the Green Belt Movement.

Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Here’s what they said: “Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.”  [The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner]. She won many other awards over her lifetime, including the Global Environment Award in 2003, Indira Gandhi Prize in 2007 and NAACP Image Award - Chairman's Award in 2009.

The world lost Maathai on Sunday, 25 September 2011. She had achieved so much in her life, showing strength in unity, education and a fierce advocacy for equality. Her legacy will stretch on for many years and she should be an inspiration to all of us.  

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