GLOBAL NEWS | winter 2004
From Gadfly to Nobel Peace Prize
Kenya’s Wangari Maathai
It wasn’t long ago that Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s well-known campaigner for women’s rights and the environment (see Ms., April/May 2001) was jailed yet again by the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi.
On International Women’s Day in 2001, she awoke in a prison cell, arrested for traveling to plant trees with other women and for demanding that the government cease illegal forest clearing. Both are activities Maathai, founder of The Green Belt Movement (GBM), had been engaging in — and been harassed, beaten or jailed for — for years.
But times have changed. In late 2002, Kenya held its first fair elections in decades. Maathai ran for parliament as a member of the Green Party, and was elected by a huge majority, taking her seat along with 17 other women in the 222-member parliament.
In 2003, Kenya ’s new president, Mwai Kibaki, appointed Maathai to the cabinet, where she serves as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. “To be elected was very important to many women, [so they can see] that it’s possible,” she says.
Most remarkably, on Dec. 10, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and first environmentalist so honored. At a recent meeting in the Fairview Hotel in Nairobi , an oasis of green, the staff greets Maathai with deference and delight. The young doorman assures her the hotel is taking good care of “your trees.” Maathai laughs, her luminous face barely showing her 64 years.
Charismatic and dogged, Maathai is navigating the transition from grassroots leader to pillar of the new democratic coalition. She’s energized by possibilities for large-scale change presented by government service, but is also contending with high expectations.
“Things are not moving as fast as I would have liked,” she says, citing the pace of government decision-making, the antiquated infrastructure and the lack of resources. “People want to see action. They don’t want to hear that I’m sitting there while the forests are disappearing.”
A former professor at the University of Nairobi and the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in East Africa , Maathai founded the GBM on Earth Day, 1977, to stop the spread of the Sahara Desert south into Kenya’s arid rural regions. Since then, GBM has helped rural Kenyans, mostly women, plant nearly 30 million trees that provide fruit, fuel and shade.
GBM’s programs of civic education — linking ecology, human rights and individual agency — have led thousands of women to claim greater control over their lives.
“One of the most wonderful things was to make ordinary people become seedling producers, ‘foresters without diplomas,’” Maathai says. “We created a movement that was not only taking action to save the environment but also educating itself about the responsibility we have as citizens to demand better governance.”
Her gender, Maathai believes, has played a crucial role — both enabling and disabling. “In the beginning, men were very unsympathetic, because they thought it’s not the right place for women,” she says.
“When you’re put in your place, they think, ‘Good!’ But when you get out, they almost can’t help but admire the process. That’s why now we have a receptive public. Many women in my country relate to my story, because it reminds them of their story.”
In the ministry, Maathai is working to rid the forest sector of corruption and to shift plastic production from soft plastic to hard, which can be recycled. She’s also looking for markets for the coffee and tea produced by her constituents, and is seeking to engage more Kenyans in managing the country’s resources. Kenya's forest cover is well below global standards.
Her solution — an annual tree-planting campaign on Easter weekend — is vintage Maathai, practical and provocative. “People here are crazy about religion and Jesus and crucifixion,” she says. “I thought, ‘Well, for the people to get the cross, somebody had to go into the forest, cut a tree and chop it up. There would be nothing better for Christians than to plant a tree and bring back a life — replace the tree that was cut.’ Imagine how many trees you could plant!”
She smiles broadly. The reality of her new government role is still sinking in. “I sit in parliament sometimes and remind myself, ‘You’re really making laws here! That’s better than what you could have done outside. You have an opportunity to influence future generations!’”
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