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Celebrating The Invaluable Life Of Kenya’s Best-Known Woman: Wangari Maathai

By Theodora Filis

Professor Wangari Maathai is internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She has addressed the UN on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the earth summit, and served on the commission for Global Governance and Commission on the Future. She and the Green Belt Movement (GBM) Kenya, a non-profit grassroots, non-governmental organization (NGO) based in Kenya, have received numerous awards, most notably The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

Prof. Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977, working with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. She became a great advocate for better management of natural resources and for sustainability, equity, and justice.

The Green Belt Movement and Professor Maathai are featured in several publications including The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach (by Professor Wangari Maathai, 2002), Speak Truth to Power (Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, 2000), Women Pioneers for the Environment (Mary Joy Breton, 1998), Hopes Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet (Frances Moore Lappé and Anna Lappé, 2002), Una Sola Terra: Donna I Medi Ambient Despres de Rio (Brice Lalonde et al., 1998), Land Ist Leben (Bedrohte Volker, 1993).

"I will be a hummingbird" - Wangari Maathai




Wangari Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in the Central Highlands of Kenya on April 1, 1940. At a time when most Kenyan girls were not educated, she went to school at the instigation of her elder brother, Nderitu. Principally taught by Catholic missionary nuns, she graduated from Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959. The following year she was part of the “Kennedy airlift,” a scholarship program of the U.S. government and the Kennedy family that took her to Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences.

In 1966 she earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. That year she returned to a newly independent Kenya, and soon after joined the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi. In 1971 she received a Ph.D., the first woman in east and central Africa to do so. She became the first woman to chair a department at the University and the first to be appointed a professor.

In June 1997, Wangari was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 persons in the world who have made a difference in the environmental arena. Professor Maathai has also received honorary doctoral degrees from several institutions around the world: William's College, MA, USA (1990), Hobart & William Smith Colleges (1994), University of Norway (1997) and Yale University (2004).

Professor Maathai served on the boards of several organizations including the UN Secretary General's Advisory Board on Disarmament, The Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organization (WEDO), World Learning for International Development, Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Center International, the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work and National Council of Women of Kenya.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Professor Maathai initiated campaigns that halted the construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi, and stopped the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest, just north of the city center. She also helped lead a yearlong vigil with the mothers of political prisoners that resulted in freedom for 51 men held by the government.

As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Professor Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified by the Moi regime. Professor Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment.

Professor Maathai’s commitment to a democratic Kenya never faltered. In December 2002, in the first free-and-fair elections in her country for a generation, she was elected as Member of Parliament for Tetu, a constituency close to where she grew up. In 2003 President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Deputy Minister for the Environment in the new government. Professor Maathai brought GBM’s strategy of grassroots empowerment and commitment to participatory, transparent governance to the Ministry of Environment and the management of Tetu's constituency development fund (CDF). As an MP, she emphasized: reforestation, forest protection, and the restoration of degraded land; education initiatives, including scholarships for those orphaned by HIV/AIDS; and expanded access to voluntary counseling and testing (VCT) as well as improved nutrition for those living with HIV/AIDS.

Professor Maathai documented her life, work, and perspectives in four books: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003), which charts the organization’s development and methods; Unbowed (2006), her autobiography; The Challenge for Africa (2008), which examines the social, economic, and political bottlenecks that have held back the continent’s development, and provides a manifesto for change; andReplenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World(2010), which explores the values that underpin the Green Belt Movement and suggests how they can be applied.

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

Mama Wangari as she is known to Kenyans for whom she is as close to a national hero as anyone there – died late Sunday at Nairobi Hospital after a long battle with cancer.

She was perhaps Kenya’s best-known woman, its first woman to earn a university doctorate, and one of its first to win undergraduate and graduate scholarships to the US.

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