Green World Mourns its ‘Black Pearl’

Women are responsible for their children, they cannot sit back, waste time and see them starve. So said Wangari Maathai.  Responsibility vested in a woman is huge. Her initiatives to fight poverty in her family and her little attempts towards liberation, is mightier a struggle for existence, than any that the world has ever seen. When the world paid its homage to Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, the green lovers mourned a woman who refused to give up her struggle to lend a hand to each of such women. Maathai’s green concept of democracy educated the Kenyan women to find natural solutions to their basic problems – the need for food and shelter. She directed them towards better environment through better governance.

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Kenya honored its beloved environmentalist and political activist with a state funeral on 25 September 2001, subsequent to her succumbing to ovarian cancer.

The first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Maathai, represented a fight to promote ‘ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”  The prize was bestowed for her “holistic approach” in her efforts and for representing Africa’s voice “to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent.”

Born in a Kenyan village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, 71 years down the lane, Maathai was just another girl from the black community.  She soon proved herself as one with a difference, by climbing the rungs of merits and accolades.

A graduate from the Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959, she was ‘airlifted’ by the scholarship programme of Kennedy family foundation. Maathai completed her bachelor’s degree in biological studies from Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, Kansas. With a master’s degree from Pittsburg University in 1966, she returned to an independent Kenya. While at the University of Nairobi, Maathai joined the School of Veterinary Medicine.

In 1971, she became the first woman in Central and East Africa to receive a Ph.D. Adding the other ‘first’ feathers to her cap she became the first woman to chair a department at the University and the first to be appointed a professor. An active member of a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), Maathai initiated her green move with a group of rural women.

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The concerns of the women, in the locale then, was that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, wanted clean water and nutritious food. This was learning for her into the deeper issues of the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans, especially women. ‘Planting trees’ was the answer that Maathai had for these ladies and thus sparked the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977.

The project has ever since not looked back and has planted more than 47 million trees through its men and women volunteers and members. The aim of the project was restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty. Trees solved their problems of wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture.

The venture opened a door to larger cause – an environmental agenda, under the umbrella of social and economic development causes and the democratic needs of the country. GBM extended itself to join other pro-democracy movements in the country under the leadership of Mathaai, in the 80s spreading through to 90s.

Maathai proved herself an iron lady when she withstood pressures from the Moi regime, which included being beaten up and jailed. However, this left her noted internationally and the environmentalists world-wide applauded her courage.

Democratic Kenya gained its first elected woman parliamentarian through Mathaai in 2002 and she was later appointed Deputy Minister for Environment in the Kibaki government in 2003.


(Factual data and pix from sources online)

As a parliamentarian and minister Maathai emphasized on 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.

She played the role of a peace ambassador during the trouble times in 2007 and was instrumental to incorporate the right of all citizens to a clean and healthy environment, in the revised Kenyan constitution, ratified by a public vote in 2010.

Maathai also co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006 with five of her fellow women peace laureates to advocate for justice, equality, and peace worldwide.

Laurels further chased Maathai, when she was appointed the goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin rainforest and when she accepted the position of presiding officer of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC).

She joined hands with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2006 to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees around the world, a goal that was met in less than a year.

In 2007 Professor Maathai became co-chair (with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin) of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, an initiative of the British and Norwegian governments, and in 2009 she was designated a United Nations messenger of peace by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Later in 2010, Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust and in the same year, she established the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) in partnership with the University of Nairobi.

An author herself, Maathai had portrayed her green life in four books -The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003), Unbowed (2006), her autobiography; The Challenge for Africa (2008)and Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010).  Maathai is survived by her three children—Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

(Guest Author: Raji Unnikrishnan)

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