That Wangari Maathai is a special human being is beyond doubt. But in determinedly surmounting and overcoming the particular barriers arrayed against her so effectively as to become a global figure of female emancipation, democratization, and environmental consciousness, the operative appellation, perhaps, should be extraordinary.
She was born on April 1st in 1940 in the Kikuyu speaking district of Nyeri, a rural part of British administered Kenya. She was an inquisitive child and stood out on account of her tendency towards precociousness, lifelong characteristics which would serve as indispensible aids to her quest for knowledge and justice, but which would also serve to rile her detractors.
Her voracious aptitude to learn made her excel in the academic field. From her primary schooling to the higher echelons of academia, she cut a swath and in the process earned the admiration of many who were unused to seeing a person from humble rural origins achieve so much, while incurring the undisguised wrath of others who still adhered to the traditional ideology of a society which was strictly patriarchal.
After completing her first degree in 1964 in Biological Sciences at Scholastica College, Kansas, she went on to obtain a Masters at Pittsburgh University. In 1971, she was awarded a Ph.D in Anatomy by the University of Nairobi, in the process becoming the first woman of East and Central African origin to do so.
The list of firsts is as impressive as they are seemingly endless: first female chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at University of Nairobi and also the first female Associate Professor of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the same institution. Additionally, she served from 1975 to 1980 as the Director of the Kenya Red Cross and was the Chair Person for Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, the Kenyan National Council for Women.
Maathai, however, was becoming involved with matters and issues away from academia. Her husband’s involvement in politics, as well as her concerns about the effects of deforestation spurred her to action. In 1977, she formed the Green Belt Coalition, a non-governmental organization which purposefully set about the task of planting trees in order to replenish their dangerously depleting reserves. A failure to act, she stressed, would lead to ecological imbalances with ramifications for the quality of soil, the availability of firewood and nutrients for animals.
She was a vocal critic of Kenya’s drift to a one party state and advocated a return to multi-party democracy while castigating the corruption and tribalism endemic in the country’s politics. She would eventually run for the office of Kenyan President in 1997.
Her achievements have not been without personal cost and sacrifice. Her husband divorced her, citing her strong-mindedness and the fact that he could not “control her.” She also faced numerous threats and imprisonment from the government of Daniel arap Moi. It would take a letter-writing campaign orchestrated by Amnesty International amongst many efforts to free her from a jail sentence imposed in 1991.
Wangari Maathai’s efforts have certainly borne the fruit of her labours. Her Green Belt Coalition has overseen the planting of over 30 million trees in Kenya, and as a government minister, she has been a part of a new age of multi-party democracy. While abroad, her academic excellence and environmental activism brought the conferment of a Visiting Fellowship at Yale University’s Global Institute of Sustainable Forestry.
In 2006, she was awarded the French Legion d’honneur, two years after her Nobel prize for her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
All very fitting acknowledgements for one from such unpromising origins, but who through dogged determination has been able to ascend amazing heights. Yet, back home in Kenya, among the simple rural folk who were and still remain her first constituency, they prefer the honorific:
“Tree Mother of Africa.”
(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2006)
(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2006)