Wangari Maathai: Planter of Trees and Justice

With Wangari Maathai at Oklahoma City University in 2008.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in 1940 in Kenya when it was still an occupied colony ruled by Great Britain, and she died in 2011 as one of the most internationally celebrated and influential environmentalists and peace and justice advocates in the world.*

A child of Kikuyu parents, whose father worked on a white settler farm to support the family. Wangari’s mother, and father, and even one of her brothers worked hard to help pay for her early education at a Catholic boarding school, where the young Wangari excelled academically and converted to Catholicism – taking on the name Mary Josephine, and she came to be known as Mary Jo. She was for the most part sheltered from the violence of the Mau Mau Rebellion against the British rule in the 1950s owing to her being in residence at the school.

Her success at boarding school enabled her to attend the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, where she became interested in the study of biology. She once again excelled academically, so much so that she was selected as one of 300 students in all of Kenya to be part of what was known as the Kennedy airlift in 1960 that brought Kenyans to the United States for higher education. (This was the program that inspired President Obama’s father to study in Hawaii, and of course we all know the rest of that story). Wangari studied in Kansas at Mount St. Scholastica College where she graduated in 1964 with a major in biology and minors in chemistry and German. She stayed in the United States to complete her masters degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh where she graduated in 1966.

In her memoir, she credited her time in the United States as not only preparing her for her future Ph.D. Studies in Germany and Kenya, but also for helping her be more open to varying religious views and giving her insight into the civil rights struggles occurring in the United States that intersected in some ways with the struggle for independence in Kenya. During her time in Pittsburgh, she was impressed by the efforts for environmental restoration that would transform Pittsburgh from one of the most polluted cities in the world to become a sustainability success story and an environmental model for other industrial cities. This was an experience that influenced her own efforts for environmental restoration and regeneration in Kenya that would bring her so much global recognition and support.

When Wangari returned to Kenya, she returned with her original name, deciding to no longer use the name Mary Josephine that she had adopted when she converted to Catholicism as a youth. She returned to Kenya in 1966, not as Mary Jo, but as Wangari Muta, the name she was given at birth. Reclaiming her name was one of her first acts of resistance to the vestiges of British colonialism that remained in the newly independent Kenya.

Upon returning to Kenya, Wangari became a research assistant in micro-anatomy and continued her studies at what would soon become the University of Nairobi. She also spent a couple of years studying and doing research in Germany before returning again to Kenya in 1969, the year she married. She had three children before she and her husband divorced In 1979. After her divorce, she added an “a” to the first syllable of her married name for it be spelled “Maathai,” and she went by the name Wangari Maathai for the rest of her life.

In 1971, she became the first woman in all of Eastern Africa to receive a Ph.D. Her doctorate was in veterinary science anatomy, and she later became the first woman to chair a university department in Kenya.

It was during the 1970s that Wangari become engaged in activism in Kenya. She worked for equal rights and benefits for women at the University of Nairobi, and her work on studying the effects of parasites on the health of cattle led her to the conclusion that environmental degradation was the main contributor of decreased health of cattle in Kenya. The forested mountains and pristine streams and rivers of Wangari’s childhood had been ravaged by deforestation that led to erosion of the land and pollution of the waters. The streams that were once teeming with life were now nearly lifeless and full of silt.

Confronted with the ecological devastation of deforestation and with the support of international nongovernmental organizations, Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. It was during this time that she saw clearly the connections between care for the environment and the health and economic well being of human communities. Working with local communities all over Kenya, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees since its founding, and it became a global model for community reforestation.

Wangari’s work for women’s rights and for ecological restoration quickly put her at odds with the extremely patriarchal and corrupt one party government in Kenya. She also experienced sexism and injustice in her divorce proceedings in which she was accused of not being an obedient wife and was even imprisoned for insinuating that the judge was either incompetent or corrupt. It was not the last time she would be mistreated by a corrupt legal system overseen by Kenya’s dictator at the time, President Moi.

Maathai directly resisted the corruption and ecological damaging practices of the Moi government. She led the effort to protect a 34 acre pubic park in Nairobi from being secretly destroyed and developed by private interests that were also enriching governmental officials. She organized protests by mothers of political prisoners at the corner of this same park that she was instrumental in saving – a location that thereafter was known as Freedom Corner. And she led the efforts to save the Karura forest in Nairobi, the second largest urban forest in the world. Her efforts for justice led her to experience brutal beatings, threats to her life, and imprisonment; but she remained unbowed to the efforts to silence her.

In the 1990s and 2000s, Maathai was instrumental in the movement for the rights of political dissent and participated in the work to bring real multiparty democracy to Kenya. Though her aspirations to become president of Kenya never came to fruition, she was elected as a member of parliament and became assistant minister for the environment from 2003 to 2005. The fact that she was seen as a threat to the patriarchal economic and political systems in Kenya following the end of British rule in which women were relegated to a subordinate role in family, society, and politics made it extremely difficult for Maathai to play a more prominent role as an elected official.

Though she was under-appreciated by the power structures in Kenya, Matthai received international attention and recognition for her work on behalf of the environment, democracy, economic justice, women’s rights, and peace; and in 2004 she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In. 2006, she also received the Gandhi Peace Prize, and she was one of the most influential persons in the history of the world for demonstrating the deep connections between the well-being of the environment and peace. She knew from her personal experience, advocacy, and academic research that the health of the environment is one of the most important contributing factors to the presence of peace and justice. She experienced firsthand the intersections of racism, sexism, economic injustice, and environmental destruction; and she spent her life relentlessly planting, both literally and figuratively, the seeds of justice and peace.

On a personal note, I had the privilege of nominating Wangari Maathai to speak at Oklahoma City University in 2008 as part of our Distinguished Speaker Series. It’s not the Nobel Peace Prize, but it is one of the ways the university recognizes outstanding persons who have made greet contributions to the betterment of our world. I had the honor of hosting her for the two days that she stayed in Oklahoma City. When she and her daughter Wanjira missed a connecting flight on their way to Oklahoma City, I had to drive to Tulsa to pick them up in order for Dr. Matthai to make it to campus on time to deliver her speech to 1500 in attendance. Looking back, I have never been more happy that a speaker missed a flight as the missed connection gave me an extra two hours with Wangari Maathai along with some of the most fascinating and inspiring conversation of my life.

Much more can be said about the life and accomplishments of this remarkable person, but I think I will close with a story that was one of Wangari Maathai’s favorite stories to tell. She told this story to our students at Oklahoma City University, and it is also a fitting tribute to her life and legacy. It is called “I will be a Hummingbird” and is featured in the Dirt! The Movie. The following are Maathai’s words:

“The story of the hummingbird is about this huge forest being consumed by a fire. All the animals in the forest come out and they are transfixed as they watch the forest burning and they feel very overwhelmed, very powerless, except this little hummingbird. It says, ‘I’m going to do something about the fire!’ So it flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It puts it on the fire, and goes up and down, up and down, up and down, as fast as it can.

In the meantime all the other animals, much bigger animals like the elephant with a big trunk that could bring much more water, they are standing there helpless. And they are saying to the hummingbird, ‘What do you think you can do? You are too little. This fire is too big. Your wings are too little and your beak is so small that you can only bring a small drop of water at a time.’

But as they continue to discourage it, it turns to them without wasting any time and it tells them, ‘I am doing the best I can.’

And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always be like a hummingbird. I may be insignificant, but I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird, I will do the best I can.”

Dirt! The Movie

May we all like Wangari Maathai do the best that we can. May she continue to rest in power.

Biographical details from Wangari Matthai, Unbowed: A Memoir.


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