I had heard about Kenyan environmental campaigner and human rights activist Dr Wangari Maathai before she died yesterday. Whilst I had not seen her give a talk, Wangari’s life and work interested me, “not just because” she is female, but actually more so when I found out she had trained as a veterinarian (like my dad) and combined her work as a vet academic with advocacy in a very practical way to benefit her home country.
Maathai, who looked much younger than her 71 years, became one of the most widely respected and recognised women on the African continent. She was not only an environmental campaigner but also a feminist, human rights activist and parliamentarian amongst other things. She seemed to really become famous globally in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement. This is at its core an environmental movement she founded in Nairobi, Kenya in the 1970s at a time when the country was still finding its feet as a new, independent nation. Under her leadership, more than 40 million trees have since been planted in Africa and the organisation has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations, while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.
Yes, she had her fair share of controversy, having to defend some comments she made about AIDS being a “biological weapon” designed by White people to wipe out Africans, as being taken out of context. She also experienced many hardships: she was beaten by the police after she foiled a Kenyan government plan to build a huge skyscraper in one of central Nairobi’s only parks. The proposal was eventually scrapped and the Peace Park grew in its honour. She was also put in jail after criticising the judge who had dismissed her divorce case and sprayed with tear gas as recently as 2008 when she left parliament and protested against the new government.
Nevertheless, what I think was incredibly unique about her work is that through the Green Belt Movement, she created one of the first social enterprises around, at a time when many other organisations and ‘movements’ were just getting started. She seems almost like the African Mother Teresa and had friends in high places, including President Obama, Bono, Oprah to name a few. Yet she always seemed to stay true to her Kenyan roots. Her environmental activism was more than just about planting trees to stop soil erosion, it was above all an economic and human rights initiative designed to help Kenyan women out of poverty. For every tree that survives more than three months outside the nursery, the woman who plants it receives a share. For many women who are subsistence farmers and have no food left over to sell, the money from tree planting is their only income.
Her work is a symbol for the importance of authenticity, of staying true to yourself and of knowing where you come from. While Africa is very much in the media right now, her work has withstood the test of time and she kept her focus on her home country and on her continent. If you press for change in your own backyard, no matter how small, that must surely be the right starting point. I guess you can never know how big the impact of what you do is going to be on not only yourself, but also the people around you, your local community or even your continent. You just keep going.
This is from her Nobel prize acceptance speech, some really inspiring words, no matter what kind of work we are involved in:
“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 fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”