“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and the future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” -Wangari Maathai 1940-2011
Politician, activist and professor, Wangari Maathai was many things rolled into one. A graduate of Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and the University of Pittsburg, both in the US, Wangari was a woman of many firsts.
She was the first woman in the region to earn a doctorate, and the first to become an associate professor, and later, professor. She quit her job to join politics but soon faced unequal opposition designed to kill her ambition.
Wangari founded the Greenbelt Movement in the late 1970s. The grassroot movement’s central purpose was environmental activism to stop deforestation. She encouraged tree planting both for its ecological and social purposes. A dedicated activist for women empowerment, Wangari believed that “African women in general need to know that it’s okay 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.”
By 1986, the Green Belt movement had become a Pan-African movement.
At a time when politicians held sway in all matters, and Wangari fought against all forms of land grabbing. She famously opposed plans to build a skyscraper at Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s most notable greenspace. To achieve that, she raised a movement of environmental activists, suffering many beatings and receiving death threats. Still, she remained unbowed.
She also joined mothers of political prisoners who launched a year-long protest at Freedom Corner. About 50 sons, all political detainees were ultimately released.
In 2004, Wangari was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work – the first African woman to receive the Nobel. In her lifetime, she was also awarded the French Legion of Honor, Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights. She authored several books: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and Experience, The Challenge for Africa, Replenishing the Earth, and her memoir, Unbowed.
Wangari Maathai died on September 25th 2011. This year, a major city road, Limuru Road, is set to be renamed Wangari Maathai Road, in her honour, while the environmental programme at the University of Nairobi also memorialises her.