The Kenyan winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace fought the good fight for the good cause
Wangari Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace, is an extraordinary woman who has fought ordinary battles against gender and tribal discrimination at the political level and she did not almost succeed. She fought many political battles against the Kenyan government of Daniel Arap Moi, and she failed more often than not. But she persisted with her work.
She faced discrimination and opposition on several counts. First, she was a woman. Second, in Kenya, she belonged to the dominant Kikuyu tribe, and her political opponents kept her out for that reason. Third, she took up the unpopular cause of preserving forests and started off with the apparently fanciful thing of planting trees and used it to fight political battles as well. She was never the icon of Kenya’s political establishment or of Kenya’s mainstream media.
Her life story is one of the surprising turns. She was chosen to study in the United States in 1960 under a programme started by then-Senator John F Kennedy under the Joseph P Kennedy Foundation. She did her graduation and post-graduation in the United States and returned to Nairobi and joined what was to become the Nairobi University. She got her doctorate in veterinary anatomy and become the senior lecturer and head of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, the first Kenyan woman to do so. At the university, she fought for the rights of women working at the university, and thus began her lifetime of struggles.
After the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm in 1972, she got associated with the Environment Liaison Centre to promote the work of non-governmental organisations of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), which was headquartered at Nairobi. When her husband was elected to Kenyan parliament in 1974 where he promised jobs, Wangari thought that one of the ways of doing it was to plant trees and she set up Envirocare Limited for the purpose. The venture failed mainly due to funding problems, but the idea flourished. UNEP helped Wangari to attend the first UN conference on human settlements, Habitat I in 1976.
On World Environment Day, June 5, 1977, Wangari spoke to the National Council of Women of Kenya to plant trees. The women marched to outskirts of Nairobi to plant trees, and it became the first Green Belt, and transformed into Green Belt Movement. She contested the election to parliament but she was prevented on technicalities. She had to resign from her university job to contest the election. She was without a job and a possible political career. The Norwegian Forestry Society approached her to work on the Green Belt Movement and planting of seedlings. In 1986 the Green Belt Movement had spread to the rest of Africa with funding from UNEP. Because of the funding that was now available, she was able to pay the women involved in the work. After repeated failures to win in the elections through the 1980s and 1990s, and the government Arap Moi arresting her time and again, and releasing her in response to international pressure and protest, she won in the 2002 national election when all the parties contested, and she became the assistant minister for environment. She lost the election in 2007 but she continued with her work for women and environment. In 2005 she was elected as the first president of African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council.
The important thing in the life and work of Wangari is that she fought the battle for the environment through political means as well, and her opponents and critics – and throughout her life, a major section of Kenya’s establishment, including the media- was hostile to her. But she was not deterred. In the Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech delivered at Oslo on December 10, 2004, she explained: “Although initially, the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya.”
She recalls a memory of her childhood at the conclusion of her Nobel speech: “As I conclude I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream. Playing among the arrowroot leaves I tried in vain to pick up the strands of frogs’ eggs, believing they were beads. But every time I put my little fingers under them they would break. Later, I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic, wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.
Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.”
Wangari is one of the environmentalists who understood the importance of culture and heritage in the lives of communities and for protecting the environment. She was not starry-eyed about Africa’s cultural heritage, but she argued and quite convincingly that cultural heritage is important. Speaking at the 4th UN World Women’s Conference in Beijing in August, 1995, she boldly set forth her point of view. She said, “The African peoples heritage is their historical record which has been passed from one generation to another and which directs communities in times of peace, insecurity and in times of birth, life and death. This heritage gives them self-identity, self-confidence and self-respect. It allows them to be in harmony with their physical and spiritual environment. It is the basis for their personal peace, or the lack of it.”
With almost Gandhian passion, Wangari argues for traditional values because she recognizes that there was something in a tradition that linked them to their environment and which made them to show reverence towards the environment. She has also been a successful woman in terms of creating material assets for her family. She left a will by which her children were to manage the estate. And she has been attacked by the mainstream media for this too. But Wangari was not broken by any of the attacks. She created an environmental movement in Kenya and in Africa based on the principles of good economics. The basic idea behind planting trees and growing forests was to create employment. And she also showed how the good fight for the environment also meant fighting for democracy and human rights. She argued the case for the environment in a language that made the environment an issue of democratic politics.
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