Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.
I remember a moment shortly after she was awarded the Nobel Prize, I was celebrating her recognition; I was happy about her work being recognized and about finally a woman being selected. The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 96 times to 129 laureates. Of those 129 laureates, 26 are organizations and 93 are individuals. Roughly 52% of the world’s population are women, so you would expect about 48 of those individuals to be women, but your expectations would be shattered. Only 16 women have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So I am always delighted when a woman is named.
And I remember a splash of cold water that was sprinkled across my joy when I mentioned Wangari Maathai’s selection to one of my friends who said, “Her! All she does is plant trees!” But of course, there is so much more to planting trees than just planting trees. So, here is a little bit about Wangari Maathai – just because she is on my mind these days . . .
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya (Africa), in 1940. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.
The Green Belt Movement (GBM) is an environmental organization that empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods. GBM was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing. GBM encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.
And here is Wangari Maathai in her own words:
It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees.
When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and hope.
African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.
And so I’m saying that, yes, colonialism was terrible, and I describe it as a legacy of wars, but we ought to be moving away from that by now.
And from this I will be remembering, attention to details, that every action contains within it the seeds of much larger actions, that there is strength in who we are as we are, and the importance of learning from the past and then getting over it and moving on to build the future for which we hope.
So, let’s get out our shovels and spades and begin to plant the seeds of the world of our best dreams!