Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940, in the town of Nyeri about 100 kilometers north of the capital city, Nairobi. When she was a child, the countryside around Nyeri was green. There were trees everywhere. Wangari still remembers how she loved an old fig tree growing by her family’s house. Her mother believed the tree was sacred and didn’t allow Wangari to eat the figs or even to touch the twigs that fell to the ground.

Wangari was an excellent student, and when she finished high school, she won a scholarship to study in the US. She spent six years there and returned to Kenya in 1966, with two degrees in biology.

She was shocked when she saw how the countryside around Nyeri had changed. Not only had her beloved fig tree disappeared, but so had all the other trees. They had been cut down to make way for tea plantations. The hillsides were eroded because the tree’s roots were no longer holding down the soil. The greenery was gone and the land was dry. A stream where Wangari had watched frogs as a child had disappeared.

She felt a beautiful place had become ugly. It had also become poor. Looking back on her early life, Wangari once said, “I did not see hunger; I did not see starving children; I did not see slums.” When she got home she did see all these things.

Five years later, in 1971, Wangari got a PhD from the University of Nairobi. Then she was given a job teaching veterinary science at the same university. Within a few years she was head of the department. Around the same time she got married to a young politician, a member of the Kenyan parliament. They soon had three children.

While helping her husband in his re-election campaign in 1974, Wangari got involved in politics herself. She learned a lot about the difficult lives of her husband’s poor and uneducated constituents. She tried to help them by finding them work making their villages healthier and more beautiful. One thing they did was plant trees. Wangari thought this was a simple and inexpensive way of improving things. The project failed in the end, but it had a big effect on Wangari. It showed her the importance of working directly with ordinary people. It also convinced her of the importance of tree-planting.

In 1977, Wangari celebrated Earth Day by planting seven tree seeds in her garden. That was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement. In the same year she managed to persuade international corporations to provide money for nurseries. Then she organized groups to plant the seedlings in towns and villages all over Kenya. These groups were mainly made up of poor and illiterate women. They were paid fifty Kenyan cents—about four US cents—for every tree that survived for three months.

Over the years, Wangari’s Green Belt Movement prospered. By 2004, thirty million trees had been planted in Kenya and jobs had been provided for the 10,000 women who operate the nurseries and plant the seedlings. Similar movements had been started in more than thirty other African countries.

Apart from employment, the trees offer many benefits. Most importantly, they provide firewood, the only cooking fuel of almost all Africans. Sometimes, when wood is scarce, people go hungry, not because they have no food, but because they have no wood. Most of the thirty million trees that have been planted will not be used for firewood, however. Their purpose is simply to replenish Kenya’s forests, which have been reduced to only three percent of their original size. The trees planted by the Green Belt Movement have helped to reverse this trend. Agriculture has been improved because there is less erosion and more rainfall. The trees provide shade and protection from the wind. And, as Wangari emphasizes, they also make the countryside beautiful.

In the early years of her struggle, Wangari realized that one of the reasons for the depletion of the forests was that corrupt and greedy Kenyan politicians were stealing the land. Sometimes they were using it themselves to grow cash crops. Sometimes they were giving it to other members of Kenya’s elite as a political favour.

Because politicians are responsible for so much of the deforestation in Kenya, Wangari’s fight against it made her into an important political figure. She spoke out strongly against dishonest politicians. She worked hard against the government to stop a skyscraper being built in a Nairobi park. She supported a group of old women who went on a hunger strike to protest about their relatives being held as political prisoners. When she learned of a plot to cancel elections and establish a military government, she joined other dissidents in publicly denouncing the government of President Daniel Arap Moi. And, with old women from the Green Belt Movement at her side, she clashed with police who were trying to prevent her from planting trees on forest land that had been cleared for a government-supported luxury housing project. As a result of all this political activity, Wangari was beaten and jailed several times. Once she was almost clubbed to death.

In 2002, the Moi government was defeated and Mwai Kibaki became President of Kenya. Wangari was elected to parliament. Later, she became the Deputy Minister of Environment. But although she had become part of the government, she continued to fight against it. In October, 2004 she threatened to resign if the government didn’t abandon a plan to cut down a forest and use the land for farming. She said, “If they go into the forest, they will be digging their own graves and those of their children and grandchildren.“

In November, 2004 Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. She said she was going to use the $1.5 million US that comes with the prize to spread the Green Belt movement around the world.

-information from: ‘Eco-Heroes’, Aubrey Wallace, Mercury House, San Francisco, 1993; Wangari Maathai&8217;s speech to the UN World Women’s Conference, Beijing, 1995; Time (US), 98.12.14; The Sunday Nation (Kenya), 01.03.08, Muthui Mwai and Mugumo Munene; Washington Post, 04.10.09, Emily Wax; New York Times, 04.10.12, Wangari Maathai