Wangari Maathai: The Green Warrior

Wangari Maathai holding up aa young tree.

This week, we were celebrating International Women’s Day. Women are an invaluable part of our society, and on behalf of all men, I would like to congratulate all women on being amazing on all fronts. We understand it always hasn’t been easy dealing with predominantly chauvinistic minds around the workplace and home. However, through the course of history, a few women have defied the status quo and held their heads high about what they believe in. I cannot mention them all as that would take close to forever, but some of the names that stand out are Cleopatra who brought  Antony and Caesar to their knees with her wit, charm and good looks, Rosa Parks, who on the height of racism and segregation in the United States, refused to give her seat on the bus to a white man, Emmeline Pankhurst, who in the early twentieth century fought for equal treatment of women and more importantly, championed the rights of women to vote.

The names of women who have contributed to a fairer –but not equal (least not yet), treatment for all women are too many to mention. But closer home, one name that has been a source of pride and joy for many, as well as had a direct impact on the society, is our very own Professor Wangari Muta Maathai.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize and after her efforts of fighting for human rights and environmental conservation were recognized. The Nobel Committee, for the first time, recognized a link between peace, sustainable management of resources, and good governance.

In her book titled Unbowed: A Memoir, she recalls how she was born in a rural setting, during the colonial era and how she studied in a Catholic mission school. Later, she was part of the six hundred Kenyans that were flown to the United States for further education through the ‘Kennedy Airlift.’ She was provided with a scholarship funded by Joseph P. Kennedy.

In 1966, after she had cleared her education in the US, Professor Maathai returned home. And when she landed, she heard President Kenyatta’s moving speech as he addressed Kenyans and appealed to them to go back to the rural areas and develop the country through the growth of coffee and tea and developing the agricultural industry. In her memoir, she talks of how motivational that one moment was for her and how she wanted to shout back to the president through the radio and tell him she was heeding his plea; she was coming back home.

Wangari Maathai holding up a young tree.

She continued her education and acquired her PhD at Nairobi University where she would later teach in the Veterinary School. It was also at this time that professor Maathai started the Green Belt Movement. She remembers a time when she had gone to a rural setting to collect tics, and she saw how the people and cattle had malnutrition. She also saw how rivers would rush down the hillsides and roads muddy with silt, she immediately knew this was as a result of soil erosion and this increased her resolve to create a conducive and environmentally friendly society.

Being a vocal female intellectual, she was on many politicians’ (at the time heavily dominated by testosterone) ‘hate list’. In 1989, she heard the government wanted to build a $ 200 million skyscraper at Uhuru Park. As expected, she was heavily against the idea and confronted the government and more directly the then president Daniel T. Moi. While the government is formidable, professor Maathai had garnered enough support with and without the borders to shake the government. The government would threaten her with torture and imprisonment, but she was relentless, and since she had international backing, she was to an extent untouchable and could not be easily ‘taken care of’ like many other dissenting voices of the time.

When she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, many expected she would tour the world, voicing the deploring and cataclysmic environmental conditions. However, she continued with her work in the country. Occasional answering calls to plant trees in many local schools and guest lecturing at renowned international universities. To date, the Green Belt Movement claims to have planted over 30 million trees just in Kenya. Her passing in 2011 was a blow to every conservationist and environmentalist and the general public. We lost an environmental giant, but her legacy will live on for a long time.

You can read more about her life story in her book Unbowed: A memoir which you can purchase at Text Book Centre for KSH 950.  We celebrate Professor Wangari Muta Maathai and by extension every other woman. We appreciate that in different capacities, you work tirelessly to ensure a better future and it is my hope that tomorrow will be a better day for women everywhere.

Inspired by Wangari Maathai’s story read four simple ways we can conserve our forests.

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