With 7 billion humans on the planet it is easy to talk oneself into accepting one’s own perceived limitations along with the placing of governments, corporations and large institutions on a pedestal. However, some have seen the folly of this apathy and have come to realise themselves as agents of change. One such person, who died nearly 9 months ago, was Wangari Maathai.
Born in a village in the highlands of Kenya in 1940, she studied well and ended up doing a masters in biology attained at the University of Pittsburgh which exposed her to the ideas of environmental restoration. Her education continued in anatomy in Germany and was completed at the University of Nairobi, where she was the first East African woman to receive a PhD. This was certainly an accomplishment in a male dominated culture, but there were further battles to be fought against President Daniel arap Moi when she campaigned for a parliamentary seat in 1982. She was denied her right to campaign on a technicality and ended up losing her university position and home.
This did not deter her, and she carried on working on her Green Belt Movement with a vision of greening Kenya as well as providing a source of employment for women. This was made possible through Norwegian funds from their Forestry Society and then eventually from UNEP, which allowed expansion beyond Kenya to form the Pan African Green Belt Network. Successful activism includes the prevention of a 60 story complex being built in Uhuru Park and the protection of Karura Forest, with further battles against Moi.
The movement, with its respect for the natural landscape and for individual freedoms, naturally progressed to a democratic movement which kept her continually in and out jail, along with hunger strikes and experiences of police brutality. She finally united the opposition to displace the corrupt government in 2002, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. This was one person’s vision and determination.
The Green Belt Movement now has 3,987 supported community tree nurseries across Kenya which take care of more than 8 million indigenous seedlings annually for planting in degraded forest lands, private and public lands, sites of cultural significance and protected reserves. It has planted 47 million trees around Kenya.
“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!” Wangari Maathai