Wangari Maathai evokes different reactions in different people. Environmentalists around the world have hailed her conservation work, recognising it with several awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize – the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for environmentalists.
For rural women in Kenya, she has been a liberator. Through her NGO, called the Green Belt Movement, she has facilitated their economic and social empowerment where their own elected leaders have usually failed them.
Maathai’s friends share admiration for her, but also her pain. Under the regime of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, she suffered police beatings and imprisonment. Her political activism forced her to be separated from her children, whom she sent overseas to ensure their safety. Indeed, many mothers in Kenya can relate to this pain, as it is not unusual for families to have one or all of their children living in other countries in the hope of a better life.
Moi called Maathai a ‘mad woman” and ‘a threat to order and security in the country”. MPs dismissed her because she is divorced and threatened to mutilate her genitals so that she would behave ‘as a woman should”.
You see, Wangari Maathai transgressed sacrosanct political and cultural boundaries. Not only did she dare to speak out against a corrupt political regime, she was a woman speaking out against men, in a society where women are expected to be subservient to their male counterparts.
Her transgressions do not stop there. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to obtain a doctorate, and the first woman professor at the University of Nairobi.
In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM), whose objectives centre on the restoration of Kenya’s rapidly diminishing forests. The movement also seeks to promote the empowerment of rural women through environmental conservation.
Rural women’s daily lives are intricately intertwined with their environment. They are responsible for fetching water and ensuring that there is enough firewood in the home for cooking and heating. As forests diminish because of the demands made on them to satisfy household needs, it is women who walk further and further in search of the increasingly scarce resources. By planting trees, the movement not only ensures greater environmental sustainability, it also alleviates the daily burdens faced by women by providing a close, sustainable source of fuel.
The GBM gets seedlings and distributes them free of charge to rural communities. A network of locally trained community members, often women, provides advice to women farmers about planting, maintenance and nurturing of the seed-lings. The GBM pays farmers for every tree that survives, thus providing women with an independent source of income.
What began as a small nursery in Maathai’s back yard has grown into about 3 000 nurseries giving job opportunities to 80 000 people, most of them rural women. About 20- million trees have been planted in Kenya, and nearly 80% of these have survived. The movement has also grown beyond Kenya’s borders and now has local chapters in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
In its first decade, the GBM worked in relative harmony with the government. It was housed in government-owned offices and worked closely with the Ministry of Forestry, which initially provided seedlings free of charge.
The first clash with the state came in 1989, when the government announced a plan which one minister argued ‘would have a positive impact on the city’s skyline”. That plan was to build a 60-storey building worth $200- million, graced with a gigantic statue of Moi, in one of the last remaining open spaces in Nairobi, called Uhuru (Freedom) Park.
Maathai’s was the lone voice that dared to publicly confront Moi and his leadership. She argued that not only would the multi-storey complex destroy one of the last green spaces left in Nairobi, it would come at a great cost to taxpayers. She argued that the money could be better spent on education and eradicating poverty in the country.
Uhuru Park had already been cordoned off in preparation for construction when, as a result of pressure from local NGOs and the international environmental community, the $200-million loan was withdrawn and the project was halted. Unable to face the embarrassment of defeat, the government left the construction fence around the park until a year later, when they reluctantly tore it down and allowed public access to the park again.
Sadly, this victory came at a huge cost to Wangari Maathai and the GBM. She was personally harassed and assaulted by Moi’s security forces. A concerted effort to disgrace her character and integrity began in parliament and in the government-owned media. Moi called her and her supporters people with ‘insects in their heads” and ‘wondered why the women of Kenya had not taken any steps to ostracise their ‘wayward’ colleague”.
Intimidation and harassment of GBM members at grassroots level followed, with threats directed at the life and limb of people participating in the movement and vandalism of GBM nurseries. The movement was kicked out of its government-owned offices and, because of the state-sanctioned threats, GBM’s progress in Kenya slowed down significantly.
But this failed to silence Maathai. ‘Many men in positions of influence, including Daniel arap Moi, ridiculed me,” she recalls. ‘At one time MPs ridiculed me for being a divorced woman. I felt that deep inside they were hoping that, by calling into question my womanhood, I would be subdued. Later they realised they were wrong.”
Maathai has been a significant player in the political arena. She co-founded the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, a movement formed to bring about democracy in Kenya. In 1997, she played an instrumental role in trying to unite the opposition against the Kenya African National Union, the ruling party.
When she failed in her attempts, she ran for president on an independent ticket. This move was met by criticism from her friends and foes, and she was seen as a spoiler because she further divided the opposition that she sought to unite. She lost the election.
In last year’s historic elections in Kenya, Maathai stood for a parliamentary seat, this time with a united opposition under the National Rainbow Coalition banner, which succeeded in ousting Moi. Notwithstanding attempts by her political rivals to disrupt her rallies and hurl insults and abuse at her, Maathai won her parliamentary seat with an overwhelming majority.
She is now Assistant Minister for Environment and continues her struggle for the protection of the environment. One of her first fights in her new position has been with her own party, which is considering giving a licence to an American investor to build a five-star hotel in Karura forest on the outskirts of Nairobi. The investor allegedly bought the land in a deal sealed by the previous government.
At the time Earthyear went to press, the Environment Ministry was embroiled in a debate about granting a licence to a Canadian company to mine titanium on the Kenyan coast. This was seen as the thin end of the wedge, with several investors lining up to start mining gold and coal in various parts of the country.
The litmus test for the new government must be how it chooses to engage with its critics and deal with such contested issues. Maathai’s ministry is also involved in rooting out the corrupt practices of the previous government, which illegally sold state forests and gave illegal logging permits to individuals with connections to the Moi regime. The way the new government deals with this kind of corruption will allow Kenyans to determine whether real political transformation has occurred.
As a young Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai is my role model. She has opened cultural and political doors that have traditionally been strict male domains. To some extent she has made it easier for young Kenyan women – we have a precedent where she had none.
A green, safe environment is not the only gift she will bequeath to posterity. Her inspiration, hope and fighting power will endure for generations to come. n
Caroline Kihato is a Kenyan citizen and a senior lecturer at the school of architecture and planning at the University of the Witwatersrand.