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Woman of the Month April 2018

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“I’m very conscious of the fact that you can’t do it alone. It’s teamwork. When you do it alone you run the risk that when you are no longer there nobody else will do it.” 
Wangari MaathaiThe Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience

Wangari Maathai

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Wangari Maathai (April 1, 1940 - September 25, 2011)

Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, environmentalist and activist, is one of the most dramatic figures on the African political scene. By turns an environmental scholar, feminist, international celebrity and political gadfly, she was named “The Forest Queen” by New African magazine. U.S. Vice President Albert Gore, Jr., praised her work in his book Earth in the Balance.

Dr. Maathai was a surprise choice for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but she argues that saving the environment is an issue of world peace. The Nobel Committee lauded her for standing up against the oppressive regime of Daniel arap MOI, which imprisoned her several times and harassed her. She has also received many other international awards, including the shared $100,000 Africa Leadership Prize of the Hunger Project in 1991. She was a featured speaker at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. Maathai has also been beaten and teargassed by police, criticized in the tabloids, and denounced by President Moi, who accused her of circulating false coup rumors and restricted her travel. She won the right to attend the Rio meeting only after a court battle. In response to her defeating the government in court, 150 troops surrounded her home, and she was arrested.

After graduating from St. Scholastica College in the United States, Maathai was the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate (biology), to be appointed to a professorship, or to become a university department chair and dean. In 1977 she began the Greenbelt Movement, the most successful environmental program in Africa. This program is a grassroots effort involving rural women, whom she has helped to empower. At any one time it employs 50,000 women in the part-time planting of indigenous trees, such as fig, baobab, blue gum, and acacia, that were destroyed during the colonial period. Greenbelt's goal is reforestation and the restoration of Kenya's natural habitat. Its accomplishments are impressive: 12 million trees planted, 1,000 nurseries, 90,000 members and a multimillion-dollar annual budget. As a result of this program, Kenya is one of the few African countries dealing effectively with its deforestation threat.

Mass movements cause tremors of fear among some politicians. Maathai embodied their worst fears when she opposed the 1989 attempt by the national party, the Kenya National African Union, to build a massive 60-story office tower in the main greenspace of central Nairobi. The building would have cast a shadow over the central business district for several hours each day. Using her international connections to persuade the World Bank and other granting agencies that the project was environmentally unsound, she successfully prevented construction. Even the American ambassador publicly criticized the project.

Maathai has paid a high personal price for her convictions. Her husband, a businessman and member of the Kenyan parliament, was ridiculed for having such a powerful and highly educated wife “beyond his control.” He buckled under social pressure and attacks on his masculinity and divorced her. The bitterness of the divorce filled the newspapers, and their breakup became the subject of common gossip. It was this public attempt to degrade her that influenced Maathai to unite women's issues with environmental ones. Most dramatic was her defense of eight mothers of political prisoners, who staged a sit-in that drew thousands of participants. Finally, she resigned her position at the University of Nairobi to run for parliament but was disqualified on a technicality. The university refused to take her back.

Maathai's views can be startling. She rejects having African women move into the mainstream of society because that mainstream denies full participation even to men. Women in Africa lead miserable lives, she concedes, but “we forget that these miserable women are married to miserable men. They are oppressed together.” She advocates the development of Kiswahili over both English and other African languages as a common language. She has sharply criticized the African educated class to which she belongs as “an elite club to exploit Africans, no better than the world which colonized us.”

Despite her fierce convictions and tireless activism, Wangari Maathai is a soft-spoken, simple woman. Only when questions of the environment, justice and women's issues are raised does her voice get steely, her words more measured and biting. She caused considerable controversy when she claimed that AIDS was the result of failed bio-engineering, a conspiracy theory that was originally disseminated by the Soviets during the Cold War. She blurted out that AIDS was created by Western scientists “to punish Blacks.” Her comments stirred denunciations in the scientific community and she later modified them somewhat.

Maathai was elected to parliament when Mwai KIBAKI defeated Moi, and in 2003 she was appointed assistant minister of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. She has been a visiting fellow at Yale University since 2002.

Source: Maathai, Wangari Muta. (2006). In N. C. Brockman, An African Biographical Dictionary (2nd ed.). Amenia, NY: Grey House Publishing. Retrieved from

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