Ihithe is a small village near Nyeri, on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains. The forests that grace these high mountains use to reach down in the valley. Today the trees are gone. Farming has taken their place. When Wangari Maathai was growing up in Ihithe in the 1940, she had to come to know the forest, with its rich soil, the animals, the clear water of the many streams. “Now the forests have come down, the land has been turned to commercial farming, the tea plantations keep everyone poor, and the economic system does not allow people to appreciate the beauty of where they live’, she said recently.
Wangari went to the local Catholic school where she did well. Her mother kept repeating her not to be afraid of the animals she would find on the way to school. Indeed, Wangari developed a special love for the environment. She went on to study and win a scholarship to go overseas. Once again, she was supported by Catholic Sisters who welcomed her in their convent while she was attending University. After further study in Germany, she returned to a newly independent Kenya in 1966, and five years later become the first woman in east Africa to obtain a PhD from an African university. She started an academic journey that would lead her to be the first African woman to run a University department. However, her commitment to life soon took her away from the laboratories.
In 1977, her love for the environment and her concern for women brought her to establish the Green Belt Movement. The Movement organizes women to plant tree, combat deforestation and soil erosion. It also helps women to realize their potential and fight discrimination and poverty. “Women find themselves in a vicious cycle of debilitating poverty, lost self-confidence and a never-ending struggle to meet their most basic needs”, she said. The Green Belt movement’s tree-planting activities did not have a political goal. Yet, it soon became clear to her that caring the environment was impossible without a democratic space. The tree became a symbol for political change in Kenya. Wangari realized that planting trees could also be a powerful tool to fight abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement. This became apparent when, with many other women, she fought to keep Uhuru Park untouched by developers. Uhuru means freedom in Swahili, and Uhuru Park is set in central Nairobi, a place where to meet, enjoy the vast fields and the lake, a place for the people. She won the battle, sending the dictator Daniel Toroitich ara Moi fuming.
In 1992, a list of people targeted by the government for assassination was made public, her name was also there. She then occupied a corner of Uhuru Park with other women, many of them elderly. They asked for democratic change, for the release of political prisoners and for the end of systematic violence against political activists. After a few days, the police intervened. The elderly women bared their breasts in front of them – a powerful curse – but ended up beaten by the officers.
When the push for democracy gained momentum, she joined the Rainbow Coalition that overthrew Moi in 2002. She became a junior Minister in the Ministry of Water, but soon found out that she was not loved by the new democratic politicians, in the same way she had not been loved by the dictator. In 2004, Wangari was awarded the Nobel peace prize. The prize gave her an international profile and the opportunity to visit other countries, delivering the message that ecology and democracy were indivisible. I had interviewed her before – the main office of the Green Belt Movement was just a few meters away from my own home – but I asked to meet her once again. When all the questions and answers were over, I pointed out that her name means daughter of a leopard, and asked her if she was one. She laughed and told me, ‘Many journalists have met me and asked me all kind of questions, no one asked me that. When I was a child, my mother kept telling me not to be afraid of wild animals. If I met a leopard on the way to school or while in the forest, I was to remind him that I was her daughter. In a sense, I am a leopard, for many times I had to fight hard to see my right recognized”. Wangari fought many battles, lost the one against cancer. She died on September 25, 2011. She leaves a legacy of commitment for the environment – the Green Belt Movement manages 6,000 nurseries in Kenya and branches in 30 countries – and for democracy.