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· A recollection of the life of the Kenyan Wangari Maathai ·

Indomitable. This is the title that Wangari Maathai chose for her autobiography, published six years before her death, which took place in Kenya on September 25, 2011. The first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, Wangari was born in 1940 in the verdant plain of Kenya.

Sensitive from an early age to the beauty of the environment, having studied in her native land with Benedictine nuns (where she embraces the Catholic faith), having been formed in biology in the United States and Germany and having obtained her doctorate from the University of Kenya, Wangari becomes aware of the progressive environmental degradation caused by the colonial and post-colonial politics of deforestation, implemented to make way for plantations of coffee, tea and exotic trees used for wood.

To these facts several other elements can be added that converge in her decision to plant trees throughout the country. Among them, the concern of Ncwk (the National Council of Women of Kenya of which she was president from 1981 to 1987), for the poor women living in rural areas. In a spirit of Harambe ("working together"), she manages to involve the networks of Ncwk around the country, as well as churches, schools and farmers in the planting of trees. Women and trees: it was these that were the lines of action and priorities that inspired her life.

The Gbm - the Green Belt Movement which she launched in 1977 to raise awareness not only among Kenyans of the ecological situation, the lack of democracy and of respect for human rights – will stay linked to the Ncwk until 1987, when it becomes an NGO. The authorities of the country initially collaborated, but things changed when Wangari began to speak, in her seminars and meetings with women and young people, about democracy, about rights and about the country's problems and the responsibility of the Government and of citizen’s themselves.

The fight between her and the government becomes even more difficult when, in 1989, she opposes the construction project in the heart of Uhuru Park, of a sixty floor complex that would have severely damaged the ecological balance of her country. She manages to make her voice heard both within and across national boundaries, involving the press which in general has always taken her side, as well as the then Archbishop of Nairobi and the Episcopal Commission for Justice and Peace. She managed to stop the project, an incredible success in a country where the people were accustomed to suffer government rule in silence .

Soon Wangari was already involved in another battle: to save Karura Forest. She will win this time as well, but the price she paid in her life for the tenacity of her positions taken were high. Repeatedly imprisoned, Wangari Maathai lost her job as a university lecturer and was found guilty in a divorce she endured, in which she had the courage to describe the judge as both corrupt and incompetent. For the husband who had left her with three young children, she was a woman who was too educated, with too much success and too difficult to control; a bad example for the women of the country who, according to President Moi, ought to respect men and keep quiet . But Wangari, the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa, continued to fight for a more just and modern society, but one which had, however, its roots deep within tradition. Just like trees, which have their roots in the ground and grow towards the sky.

This is the spirit that she sought to infuse through the Green Belt Movement, which was active for several years, even though confined to her small house. With the aid of Care-Austria and other bodies, the association was able subsequently to have premises of their own, still working today.

In her struggles Wangari received the support of several external organizations, especially from northern Europe and the United Nations, funds which she knew how to manage with transparency and honesty, and that allowed the movement to grow and mature. Her method of action, planting trees in circles - hence, "green belt" - was also adopted by other countries, including the United States. Thanks to her, an increasing awareness developed between  the link between ecology, sustainable development, social transformation and peace. She celebrated her Nobel Prize by planting a tree, one of more than fifty million trees planted so far by the movement.

Thanks to the democratic change in the country to which she had contributed significantly,  Wangari Maathai, in the government of  the new Kenyan President Kibaki, was appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment. This was in 2003, she will step down two years later.

In addition to the Green Belt Movement- of which her daughter Wanjira is the current Vice President – Wangari also bequeaths the Institute for environmental studies and peace, linked to the University of Nairobi, which continues its work following her multi-disciplinary approach.




St. Peter’s Square

Jan. 22, 2020