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Prof. Wangari Maathai (1940 - 2011)


By Amina Mohamed

Deputy Executive Director, UNEP

Wangari Maathai — who died in September, aged 71 — was an exceptional woman, sister, environmentalist and an a great African. If ever a life can be described as groundbreaking, it was hers. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to gain a doctorate degree, she pioneered tree planting to improve the prospects of the poor, and became the first environmentalist and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Yet her heart always stayed with the land and the rural people from which she sprang, and she remained a great listener, an excellent teacher, a wise counsellor and a faithful friend.

Born on 1st April, 1940, in Nyeri, central Kenya, to a farming family she grew up, as she once put it, “close to my mother, in the field, where I could observe nature”. Her parents taught her to “respect the soil and its bounty” in a land so green that there was no word in the local language for desert. She recalled drawing water from a spring, “fascinated by the way the clean, cool water pushed its way through the soft red clay so gently that even the individual grains of the soil were left undisturbed”.

But the trees were cut for tea plantations, and the spring dried up. “I feel the tragedy under my feet. Gulleys stare at me, telling the story of soil erosion, unknown before. Hunger is on the faces of the people”, she recalled. It was an experience that was to drive a lifetime of working to restore land and livelihoods throughout the world.

Thanks to her older brother’s persuasion, her parents sent her to school, where she excelled, eventually winning a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh and gaining her doctorate at the University of Nairobi where, by 1977, she was Chair of its Department of Veterinary Anatomy.

In that same year, Wangari founded the Green Belt Movement, which encouraged women in rural Kenya to plant trees, paying them a small sum for each one that survived.” It occurred to me”, she explained, “that some of the problems women talked about were connected to the land. If you plant trees, you give them firewood. If you plant trees, you give them food.”

She left teaching to do this work full time. Over the intervening decades her movement caused over 30 million trees to be planted in Africa, helping nearly 900,000 women establish nurseries and do the work. In 2006 she was the inspiration behind — and became the co-patron of UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, which has so far seen the planting of 12 billion trees worldwide.

Yet that was only one aspect of her activism, for she was also a champion of the rights of the downtrodden, especially women, of the well-being of the girlchild, and of expanding democratic space. “I started out planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country”, she once said, a contribution praised in a tribute by Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki. During the years of struggle, she was able to turn to UNEP for safety and sanctuary when needed.

She served briefly as a junior environment minister from 2003 and the next year was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for being “at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa”.

She continued this fight to the end of her life. What drove her? “I don’t really know why I care so much”, was her answer. “I just have something inside me that tells me there is a problem and I have to do something about it.”

 

 

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