My sincere tribute to The founder Green Belt Revolution -Nobel Peace Laureate, Wangari Maathai.
Wangari Maathai was born on 1 April 1940, in the village of Ihithe in the Nyeri district, situated in Kenya’s central highlands. Her family belonged to the Kikuyu community, which was the dominant ethnic group in the country. Her ancestors had been living in that area for several generations. In 1943, Wangari’s family shifted to a white-owned farm near Nakuru town, where her father had found work.
Late in 1947, they relocated from Nakuru to Ihithe because her two older brothers were already studying in primary school there. While in Nyeri, her brother Nderitu once asked their mother why Wangari was not going to school. Wangari recollects that it was not a shocking question; educating daughters was a tradition in their family, although it was not a common practice in other Kenyan households.
Her mother had many answers from where she could have chosen her response. She could have said, ‘We don’t have enough money,’ or ‘I need her at home,’ or ‘What is the point of a girl‘s going to school?’. Irrespective of the response her mother gave that day, the question changed the course of Wangari’s life, and she often wondered what would have happened if her brother Nderitu had not posed it. Her mother was not in a position to pay her school fee, but her daughter’s welfare reigned supreme in her mind, and she decided to start cultivating the village fields, for which she could earn about sixty cents a day.
At the age of eight, Wangari was admitted to Ihithe Primary School, three miles away. Her cousin Jonothan, nicknamed Jono, would accompany her to school. He was older than her and had already learnt to read and write. Wangari’s first day at school remained etched deeply in her mind and soul. While walking with Wangari to school one day, Jono sat down by the side of the road and asked Wangari to sit by his side. He asked her if she knew how to read and write; to which she replied in the negative.
He took out an exercise book and wrote something in it with a pencil and showed it to Wangari. Wangari was surprised. ‘Wow, so you can write!’ Wangari exclaimed, wide-eyed. Her eyes further widened when her cousin took an eraser out of his bag and rubbed it over what he had written, making the writing vanish. Wangari thought that her cousin had performed a miracle, for she had never seen an eraser before. She was further delighted to learn from her cousin that she would also be able to perform the same miracle at school.
She was a trustworthy, responsible child. Once when her mother had to undergo an operation for the removal of her appendix, Wangari stayed back at home. . When her mother returned, she was amazed at how much work Wangari had done. There was an incident once, when Wangari was carrying a load of red kidney beans on her back while walking home with a donkey that was also carrying a sack of the beans on its back. While coming down a hill, the donkey slipped and rolled down the slope. Wangari sure-footedly hurried down the slope with the bag of beans still safely secure on her back, and helped the donkey rise up. Then both she and the donkey walked home and collapsed in a heap. Seeing Wangari and the donkey lying exhausted next to each other, her mother came running out of the house. Wangari recalled that this incident remained with her throughout her life and reminded her that if you are determined and single-minded, you can achieve anything.
In her childhood, she would always help her mother at home and go out on errands. She has described her fascination for cultivation and her journeys of criss-crossing the fields, rivers and woodlots in the following words:
‘Nothing is more beautiful than cultivating the land at dusk. At that time of the day in the central highlands the air and the soil are cool, the sun is going down, the sunlight is golden against the ridges and the green of trees and there is usually a breeze. As you remove the weeds and press the earth around the crops you feel content and wish the light would last longer so you could cultivate more. Earth and water; air and the waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil. When I was a child I became so absorbed working in the fields with my machete that I did not notice the end of the day until it got so dark that I could no longer differentiate between the weeds and crops. At that point I knew it was time to go home on the narrow paths that crisscrossed the fields, rivers and woodlots.’
She was a woman attached to her soil. Despite being a highly educated woman, her love for the soil always reigned supreme in her heart.
‘Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground; alongside rural women. Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for being so. But I had no problem with it and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil. Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from land but instill in them even more respect for it because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters and the women; you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.’
Wangari had a natural knack for humility. Despite being a University professor, she did not mind cultivating the land with her knees on the ground and never cared for the people’s reaction.
In her childhood, she heard stories from her eighty year old aunt Nyakweya, who was a great story teller. She would imitate the antics of the characters in the art of her story telling. Her aunt’s stories revolved around evil pitted against good, and good triumphed in the end. Growing up with an intimate relationship with a grandma is often rewarding. When she was eleven years old, she attended St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School, which was a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri. There she acquired greater fluency in English, converted to Catholicism, and became associated with the Legion of Mary. She was greatly influenced by the nuns at the school. She often wondered about the nuns who were young and pretty and yet had chosen to give up family life and sacrificed personal comforts, and had chosen to serve strangers instead. The nuns virtually acted as their surrogate mothers.
She also started visiting the sick. Her motto became; ‘Service to mankind is service to God.’ She stood first in her class and was admitted to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya—Loreto Girls’ High School, in Limuru. Late in the 1950s, the winds of change were sweeping throughout Africa as colonial era was coming to an end. In the hope of freedom, Kenyan politicians like Tom Mboya thought of providing higher education to their men and women to fill high posts of governance. They built contacts with top politicians of America, in particular with Senator John F. Kennedy. In September, 1960, the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation agreed not only to fund the programme of imparting higher studies in America to men and women of Kenya, but also sponsored their flights to America. This programme came to be known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa.
In 1967, she studied in Germany at the University of Giessen and the University of Munich, in pursuit of her Doctorate and thus became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD; a Doctorate in Veterinary Anatomy from the University College of Nairobi. She wrote her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines which Wangari claimed deepened her understanding of how sexual organs develop in human beings.
Wangari’s concerns for environmental improvement lead her towards her most cherished aim; the Green Belt movement. At the University, Wangari was researching the reasons behind the East Coast fever which was proving fatal for the imported hybrid cattle. This infection was spreading through brown ear ticks. She had started collecting ticks from the rural areas. There she found that the rivers were muddy with silt as heavy rains down the hillsides had swept away many paths and roads. She had not seen such an extent of soil erosion before. The cows had also become skinny as there wasn’t much grass left around for them to graze.
Wangari also noticed that the livestock industry was suffering due to environmental degradation. She further noticed that the lands that were earlier covered by trees, shrubs, bushes and grass were being ploughed for tea and coffee cultivation. She was dismayed to find that a fig tree which was very dear to her had been cut down and the present owner of the land was growing tea in its place. She bowed before the wisdom of their ancestors for having retained the fig trees generation after generation which served as the best soil conservers. All this degradation had created an alarming situation. Wangari was already a member of National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), founded in 1964 as an umbrella organisation of various women’s groups both in urban and rural Kenya. This organisation was led by women who had excelled in their professions , business or social lives and had carved a niche for themselves in the hearts of Kenyans due to their selfless service to the society in their respective fields.
Around this time, news came that the first UN conference on women was going to be held in Mexico City in June 1975. The members of NCWK started deliberating the issues to be raised in this conference. Almost all the participants in such discussions centred on the issues of inadequate wood for fencing and fuel, insufficient grass pastures for their cattle, potable water and non-availability of sufficient food to eat. Wangari realized that all the problems were owing to environmental degradation. The causes of environmental degradation were obvious- deforestation, soil erosion, de-vegetation and non-profitable agriculture. Finding solutions to these problems causing environmental degradation gave birth to the Green Belt Movement.
Wangari felt that one most important factor in reversing the trend of environmental degradation was tree plantation. She motivated Kenyan women to plant nurseries throughout the country. They searched for seeds in the forest to plant and grow trees that were native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling planted. Her efforts at mobilizing women to plant nurseries notwithstanding, she felt that the movement had gotten a real impetus from the women’s consciousness which was spurred during the Decade for Women (1975-86), declared by the UN in Mexico City. In 1977, the NCWK accepted Wangari’s request to plant trees. On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the activists of NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in Nairobi to Kamukunji Park at the outskirts of the city. There they planted seven trees in honour of historical community leaders. This was the first Green Belt, which was first known as the Save the Land-Harambee, meaning ‘Let us pull together’, and then became the Green Belt Movement.
Wangari scripted a saga of selfless sacrifice for the Kenyan people. The Green Belt Movement planted some 40 million trees. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. It was stated to be for her ‘contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.’ On 8 October, 2004, Ole Danbolt Mjos, Chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, informed her that she had been selected for the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2004. She was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee paid her a glowing tribute in the following words:
‘Wangari 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 an inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.’
The constant refrain of my narrative is to call upon women to realize that they are the creators of the human world and it is enjoined upon the creator to take care of its creations and that a creator is never weak. Wangari Maathai echoed the same sentiments when she observed:
‘Women are responsible for their children; they cannot sit back, waste time and see them starve.’
As an environmentalist, she is almost reprimanding when she observed:
After suffering prolonged battle with ovarian cancer, Professor Wangari took leave of this planet on 25 September 2011, when she was 71. The whole world remembers her very fondly. This simple yet emphatic woman has left behind a saga of selfless sacrifice, valour, courage, conviction, tenacity of purpose, yet she remained inexorably wedded to the dreams of the common rural woman. She laid a sublime path with absolute humility; a path for each one of us to tread to secure abiding world peace with equitable justice and compassion.
‘Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive,you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.’
Let us echo in her native kikuyu language:
Huruka Maitu Wangari – Rest in Peace, mama Wangari.
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