I once took a class in environmental and social changes, where I studied the work of Dr. Wangari Maathai. Her boldness and her stand for truth made her a great role model for many African women, and Africans in general. She was bold! “Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views. “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.” Indeed, Wangari Maathai was one of the most widely respected women on the continent, where she played many roles: environmentalist, politician, feminist, professor, human rights advocate, and head of the Green Belt Movement which she started in 1977. She was scoffed at by the Kenyan Forestry department who thought that uneducated women could not fight the desert. She told them ‘We need millions of trees and you foresters are too few, you’ll never produce them. So you need to make everyone foresters.’ I call the women of the Green Belt Movement foresters without diplomas.”
As a star student after high school, she won a scholarship to study biology in Kansas (US), and went on for a Masters of Science at the University of Pittsburgh, and later a doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi where she later taught and became chair of the department in the 1970s. Wangari’s work started with the Green Belt Movement with the mission of planting trees across Kenya to fight erosion, stop desertification, create firewood for fuel, provide jobs for women, and empower the women of Kenya. According to the United Nations’ data, her organization has planted over 45 million trees in Kenya, helped 900,000 women, and inspired similar projects in other African countries. “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program. He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”
Her work was illustrated in one of my secondary school English textbook. The government of Arap Moi was trying to build a skyscraper in one of Nairobi’s only parks, and she brought women who protested until the government abandoned the project. She was beaten by police until she fainted. Wangari was not one to back down from her beliefs. She would go to jail for what she believed in. For instance, her husband divorced her because he said she was too strong-minded for a woman. When she lost her case in court, she criticized the judge and told him her mind, and was thus thrown to jail.
In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.” Wangari Maathai has received many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburg, her alma mater. Check out articles by the BBC, CNN, her Interview on NPR, and the Huffington Post whose article is entitled “Wangari Maathai and the Real Work of Hope .” Don’t forget to click also on the The Green Belt Movement website, and the movie “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.” She once said that ‘we should all be hummingbirds‘: doers, and not spectators, even in the face of great challenges; do the best you can. Goodbye Wangari, your work is not over, for Africa has been blessed with millions of Wangari Maathais who will continue your outstanding work.