Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees, as well as seeds of hope for women and the rural poor of Kenya. She defied custom, tradition, and her own government to carry out the groundbreaking reforestation and human rights work that culminated in winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born the third of six children in 1940 to peasant farmers in the central highlands of then British Kenya. Although most girls of her time and place were uneducated, Maathai distinguished herself at Catholic missionary schools in nearby Nyeri and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the U.S., becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to obtain a Ph.D. and head a university department. She married in 1969, and, in fulfilling one of her politician husband’s election promises, opened an agency that paid women and poor people to plant trees. Though her husband subsequently divorced her on the grounds that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control,” Maathai’s tree-planting agency eventually evolved into the broad-based, grassroots Green Belt Movement, which mainly employed women in conserving the environment and improving their quality of life. Besides altering Kenya’s ecosystem, her movement became an emblem of social change and democracy during the repressive Moi regime. Maathai opposed corruption, rapacious development, and one-party rule in the face of humiliation, jail, and physical abuse. In 2002, however, she was elected to parliament with 98% of the vote and was subsequently appointed Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.
In addition to the Nobel Peace Prize, Dr. Maathai has twice received the Woman of the Year Award, as well as the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Africa Prize for Leadership, the Edinburgh Medal, the Legion d’Honneur, and the Sophie Prize. Not content to rest on her laurels, Dr. Maathai continues to live and work in Nairobi, sharing the successes of her Green Belt Movement in the rest of Africa and worldwide.
Excerpt from Unbowed (2006)
A great river always begins somewhere. Often it starts as a tiny spring…But for the stream to grow into a river, it must meet other tributaries and join them…So, when people learn about my life and the work of the Green Belt Movement and ask me “Why trees?,” the truth of the matter is that the question has many answers. The essential one was that I reacted to a set of problems by focusing on what could be done.
I have always been interested in finding solutions. This is, I believe, a result of my education as well as my time in America; to think of what can be done rather than worrying about what cannot. I didn’t sit down and ask myself, “Now let me see; what shall I do?” It just came to me: “Why not plant trees?” The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods. They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goats. The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food. They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.
This is how the Green Belt Movement began.