Wangari Maathai, 1940-2011

by Scott London

Wangari Maathai, the environmental and political activist from Kenya, passed away on Sunday. She was one of the most memorable figures I’ve covered as a journalist, a woman of extraordinary courage and dignity. She was also possessed of a disarming humility, a wonderful sense of humor, and a rare luminosity of spirit.

Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 chiefly for her environmental work in Kenya. In 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots tree-planting campaign aimed at combating soil erosion and deforestation while also providing fuel for cooking in rural villages where women were often forced to walk miles in search of firewood. To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over thirty million trees, provided work for tens of thousands of women, and seen its efforts replicated in countries across Africa.

For Wangari, planting trees wasn’t only about protecting the environment. It was a way to promote democracy, empower women, and safeguard human rights in Africa. As she saw it, there was a direct connection between the depletion of natural resources and the failures of Kenya’s authoritarian government. In fact, she had taken on Kenya’s ruling party and its autocratic president, Daniel arap Moi, on numerous occasions during the 1980s and 90s. Though she was vilified by the government, arrested more than a dozen times, and even beaten by police, her methods were surprisingly effective.

The Nobel Peace Prize for Wangari Maathai was the first ever to an environmental activist and still the only award to an African woman in the prize’s 111-year history. She accepted it at an unusually festive award ceremony that included African drumming and performances by a Kenyan dance troupe. Over 1,000 guests filled the auditorium of Oslo City Hall, including a large delegation of Africans, many of them cheering, whistling and waving small hand flags — a welcome departure from what tends to be an overly solemn and formal award ceremony.

Dressed in a bright orange gown with a matching headband, Wangari was radiant that December afternoon. She said she was humbled and uplifted by the award and accepted it “on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa.” In her acceptance speech, she looked back on her work over the course of three decades. The Green Belt Movement, together with other civil society organizations and the Kenyan people as a whole, had much to be proud of, she said — most notably, the peaceful transition to democratic government in 2002. Yet there were still a host of critical challenges.

She concluded her speech with words that are still vivid in my memory. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fears and give hope to each other.” That time, she said, is now.

Wangari Maathai Inscription

Wangari's inscription in my copy of her memoir 'Unbowed'