Something was very wrong, and Wangari Maathai knew it. She saw that women in Kenya had to walk farther each day for water and wood and realized that the cause was a policy of rapid deforestation which had left big swaths of the nation bare and dusty. The authorities didn’t seem to care.
Educated in the U.S., Africa, and Europe, Wangari was the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate. Fortunately, her advanced degrees did not separate her from the community, but deepened her roots.
On World Environment Day, 1977, Dr. Maathai planted seven seedlings in honor of seven female environmentalists of Africa and, with that, launched the Green Belt Movement. This was her answer, her prayer, her way of reclaiming the power to heal the earth. She told her sisters that, “like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky.” (from Unbowed)
Authorities went from not caring to caring a lot. At first they laughed when they saw women in village after village planting trees. The women lacked proper training, they said.
In an interview with Marianne Schnall at Feminist.com, Wangari remembered:
I started with ordinary women from the countryside expressing their very basic needs for water, for food, for firewood, and for income, and then realizing that what the women were describing was an environment — they were coming from an environment that was failing to sustain them.
The authorities stopped laughing when Dr. Maathai got women thinking about how much better it would be for their families if they helped promote sustainable agriculture, food-security, and environmentally appropriate crops benefiting the many in place of export commodities profiting the few.
The Highs and Lows of a Celebrity-Activist
Because of her clear vision, deep insight, and vibrant, hands-on leadership style, Wangari was in great demand. She spoke about women’s empowerment and environmental issues around the world, worked for democracy and against government corruption, went on a hunger strike for the release of political prisoners, was elected to Parliament, gained international fame, won many awards, and got men involved in the Green Belt cause, including then-Senator Barack Obama. In 2004, she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Through all the years of her remarkable success, she was harassed, lied about, scorned, and threatened. Accused of being “too strong-minded for a woman,” her husband divorced her. Unable to support her children, she saw them leave to live with their father. She was beaten unconscious by the police, tear-gassed, jailed, bullied, and publicly mocked. There was international outrage when Wangari and several other environmentalists were attacked and injured while trying to plant a tree on public land that had been privatized and cleared for a golf course.
When Wangari Maaathai died of cancer in September, 2011 at age 71, the whole world mourned. The executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program remembered her as a force of nature and compared her to the acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”
By the time she died, 900,000 women had helped plant 45 million trees which provided a lush canopy of green over their heads, a canopy of hope. And it all began with Wangari’s seven little seedlings.
To Go Deeper
“Wangari Maathai’s Canopy of Hope: remembering a warrior woman for the planet and role model for us all” by Jennifer Browdy at Transition Times, Sept. 26, 2011
“Conversation with Wangari Maathai” by Marianne Schnall at Feminist.com 12/9/08
“The Legacy of Wangari Maathai: Women as Green Agents of Change” by Wanjira Maathai and Jamie Bechtel, Huffington Post, 10/16/12
Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter, 2008 (children’s book)
Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace by Jen Cullerton Johnson, 2010 (children’s book)
Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, 2012 (children’s book with amazing African print illustrations)
Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai, 2008 (Dr. Maathai recounts the brutal repression by the Kenyan government and how she started the Green Belt Movement)
Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, 2010 — Maathai draws inspiration from the teachings of the world’s religious traditions, including “tikkun olam” (the Jewish mandate to repair the world”).
“Wangari Maathai ‘The Tree Lady’ by Will Levitt” — Excellent overview of Maathai’s life, success, challenges, the power of the nonviolent grassroots Green Belt Movement and the empowerment of women. (10 mins)
“The Hummingbird and the Forest Fire” — Wangari Maathai narrates this animated story about doing the best we can, no mater how small, for the environment, from Dirt! The Movie. (2 mins)
“Wangari Maathai Tribute Film” — World leaders, including Al Gore and Bill Clinton, honor the courage of Dr. Maathai. (7 mins)
Wangari Maathai, photo by Micheline Pelletier