Wangari Maathai: Kenya’s visionary for peace, women & the environment April 1 1940 - Sept 25 2011 Print E-mail

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011)

It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25th September, 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time.

Professor Maathai’s departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her ­ as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier, and better place.

Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai started the Green Belt Movement in 1977, working with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. She became a great advocate for better management of natural resources and for sustainability, equity, and justice. A synopsis of her life and work can be read here.

Prof. Maathai leaves her three children­Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta­and a granddaughter, Ruth Wangari. They are truly very grateful for all the prayers and support they have received.

Further information on how Prof’s life will be celebrated, where to share memories and condolences, and how to join us to build her legacy for generations to come please check this website regularly.

View and share condolences.
Read the tributes from world leaders to Professor Maathai, including The Norwegian Nobel Committee, Sister Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and Mairead Maguire, The Dalai Lama, Former High Commissioner for Human Rights, former President of Ireland, President of MRFCJ Mary Robinson, President of Liberia Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and numerous others may be read HERE

The Green Belt Movement has established a memorial fund to help the organization continue the amazing legacy of Wangari Maathai. To contribute to the Wangari Muta Maathai Memorial Fund visit HERE


(Pan-African Voices for Freedom and Justice) ~ May 3 2011

Our sacred souvenir: To Wangari Maathai

By Natty Mark Samuels
There is mud under your toenails, your feet camouflaged by dust. Come, Great Sister of ours, place them in these calabashes of water, so I can wash away all the dirt. After drying them, I shall bless them with oil.

Some have gone to prepare food, especially for you. Another has gone to bring water, to quench your thirst.

You, who have struggled to improve our lives; please give us some time, so we can demonstrate our gratitude. You have given us a way to go forward, like a donation of dignity. Wangari Maathai, you lead us on the path, that keeps our heads held high.

After this washing, these two calabashes shall no longer be in use. They will hang on the wall of my dwelling, or where my sistren think best. Special mementos; of she who pointed us, then walked beside us, in the direction we should go. No longer to be used for the storing of porridge, or beer mixed with honey. They will be our Sacred Souvenirs, of Our Lady of the Trees.
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Read Also the below Selection from the Special Issue 550 of


Wangari Maathai: The tree that became a forest

Wangari Maathai: Reclaiming the Earth

  ‘In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves’ – Wangari Maathai

The implantation of British rule was brutal across the continent, particularly in Kenya. Out of this brutality has emerged a society that is continuously seeking to repair itself and repair Africa. This is the promise and numerous Africans have stepped forward to keep this promise. Kenyans have used many forms of struggle to organise for a new society: Legal, political, intellectual, moral, environmental, economic and spiritual. It is in this process of repair that Kenya has continued to be one of the firm bases for Pan-Africanism and African renewal and for new healthy humans.

This week, the material world lost one such Kenyan who has made her mark on the world, Wangari Maathai. She joined the ancestors but left her imprint along with those Kenyans who made the promise that Africa will be free and the environment will be reconstructed by thinking human beings. Wangari Maathai built a movement to reclaim the earth. She wrote, she campaigned and she toiled within the ranks of those who wanted a united and democratic Africa (in the ranks of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union (ECOSOCC). She struggled for over 40 years, developing new strategies of mobilisation to reclaim nature from the current destructive forms of production and consumption. Although her contribution to numerous movements in Africa will be celebrated, she is now known as one of the foremost internationalist and environmentalist of the Green Belt Movement of Kenya. As an African feminist who broke through the barriers imposed by the hierarchies in neocolonial Kenya, she had to be principled to survive the storms of chauvinism, regionalism, masculinity and repression. Yet, in the society where she made such a sterling contribution, her transition has refocused attention on the central link between health and gender. It is a reinforcement of the reality that a society cannot be free at the social and political level without the facilities for health care for all.

Wangari Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in Nyeri district of Kenya. This is a District in the Central Province of that East African society that saw its share of cruelty, repression and barbarism of British colonialism. It was from this district where many of the top leaders of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army emerged. Dedan Kimathi, who is now a national hero, was born in this district and is the most well-known of those sons and daughters of Central Province of Kenya. Kimathi fought against the British and his courage and bravery informed the stories of African independence beyond the borders of Kenya. It was a district that saw its share of freedom fighters and Home Guards. (The Home Guards were those Kenyans who collaborated with the colonial overlords). Wangari Maathai grew up as a teenager in the midst of this ferment and was herself chosen to serve the interests of those who wanted to forever dominate Africa. She refused. While accessing western education she never turned her back on the intellectual and spiritual resources of the village community. In fact, when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, in her acceptance speech, she acknowledged the fact that a lot of what she had learnt about environmental protection came from her childhood experiences in the village community of Nyeri in rural Kenya

In this tussle between Home Guards and those with their eyes on freedom, Britain deployed numerous tools to maintain the exploitation of the peoples. The establishment of the British Gulag was accompanied by an intensified effort to train a cadre of Kenyans who were supposed to be ‘modern’ and opposed to the ‘atavistic and barbaric’ forces who were called Mau Mau. Frank Kitson, the British military expert who refined the weaponising of anthropology developed tools of counter-insurgency in Kenya that have been refined and used in other parts of the imperial military world. A component of this low intensity campaign was the educational system that was to teach the superiority of western civilisation and groom new allies who were ‘responsible Africans.’ These were the Africans taken to boarding schools so that the stories of the freedom fighters would not pollute their minds and inspire their hopes. Wangari Maathai, like so many promising Kenyans of that era was trained to turn her back on the people of Nyeri district and the struggle for freedom in Africa.

British propaganda had mobilised the resources of the Anglo-American media to promote the ‘modernised’ types. Through the colonial institutions of socialisation and political mobilisation –churches, mosques, schools, social clubs, etc – the British imperialists worked hard to suppress the national liberation movement while putting in place an intricate hierarchy based on race, gender, ethnicity and regionalism. By the time of the explosion of the war for independence in Kenya, the United States security planners had moved in to support the British project of maintaining external control over Africa with Kenya as its beachhead. The US government organised an airlift of students from Kenya to the United States and Wangari Maathai was a beneficiary of this airlift. But she did not internalise the ideas of western consumerism and worship of the god of capital. She used the opportunity to educate herself and became the first woman PhD in Veterinary medicine in East Africa and the first professor in that field of study in Kenya.

Yet Wangari Maathai was not carried away by her professorship. Her training and education was used to strengthen the organisational capabilities of women in Kenya and she became the national chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya. During the period of the dictatorship in Kenya she had to develop the political skills to work with women in a way where the autonomy of the organisation could be maintained. For her work among women and because she refused to be cowed by men and by the state, she was labelled a ‘crazy’ woman. She became well known because of her work among grassroots women in Kenya in building the Green Belt Movement. The idea of a grassroots environmental movement in Kenya gave birth to one component of a larger global project that is now called the environmental justice movement.

Working tirelessly, nationally, across Africa and internationally, Wangari Maathai pierced through the manipulation of self-help schemes that were actually being used by politicians to enrich themselves and to oppress the people. The idea of Harambee (African self-reliance) had been co-opted by the ruling elite in Kenya to disorganise and divide the poor, especially the Kikuyu peasantry who had fought in the independence struggle but who were being manipulated by the capitalists among the Kikuyu. These capitalists mobilised ethnic chauvinism to divide Kenyans. Because of the work of women such as Wangari Maathai, the ethnic chauvinists mobilised young and unemployed males in order to act as a force to demobilise the working class in Nairobi and the Kenyan heartland. This force of manipulated young Kikuyus is sometimes called Mungiki. In 2008 we saw the fruits of this demobilisation when organised violence reinforced the theft of democracy. The ethnic chauvinists (called tribalists) who controlled the levers of banks and new speculative capital in Eastern Africa were called hyenas; these hyenas wanted to deny Kenyans the promise that this space should be a beacon for decency and justice.

Wangari Maathai and decent women in Kenya worked hard to rise above this manipulation in order to keep the promise of dignity and freedom. The Green Belt Movement was a broad based movement, which had as its core mission a project to reclaim the earth. More than 40 years ago, it was clear that the forms of economic engagement in Africa was destroying the earth and speeding desertification across the continent. Today we can see the evidence of this environmental degradation with the reality that the impact of global warming will decimate millions across Africa. We know that Africa leads the world in forest fires and that forests, which cover 20 per cent of Africa, are disappearing faster in Africa than on any other continent. Wangari Maathai grasped these realities decades ago and in 1977 in an effort to save the forests and the planet earth worked with other grassroots women to plant millions of trees to save the earth and to reclaim spaces of hope. The Green Belt Movement has planted close to 50 million trees and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) now recognise this tree planting effort as a central aspect of the struggle to repair the earth.

Wangari Maathai organised a self-help project to empower women, establish self-confidence among them and to stand up to oppressors. Because of the intensity of the oppression in Kenya, she had to devise novel forms of organising for social justice. But social justice could not follow a straight path based on good leaders such as Maathai. She was tested over many years by incarceration, banishment, grounding and other forms of intimidation. She did not bow. She has also recorded that tenacity in her own words in the book, ‘Unbowed’. Many of us heard about the heroic struggles to keep spaces of community solidarity open in Kenya. Uhuru Park in Nairobi and Jevanjeee Gardens are two such public spaces where she made her contribution, by ensuring that people had access to these spaces. Other grassroots movements in Kenya now benefit from these green spaces and one such Kenyan movement, Bunge la Mwananchi, is challenged to keep the promise of Kenya and to learn from Wangari Maathai that the leadership role of women cannot be based on tokenism. Kenya is the capital of the NGOisation of social movements in Africa and progressive forces have to devise new ways every day to navigate through the traps of cooptation and corruption of the ideas of social power of the poor.

Wangari Maathai has left many lessons for grassroots organisation on how to navigate the snakepit of NGO politics. When imperial power recognised the work of Wangari Maathai, the United Nations Environment Program, (UNEP) sought to tap into her experiences as an organiser. Yet, the United Nations operatives in Kenya could not see that environmental justice could not come from simply working with donor agencies. Environmental justice will only come from a change in the system. We saw this clearly at the Copenhagen Summit in 2009. Wangari Maathai was very present at this meeting where the environmental justice forces from the South came to the understanding that the question of climate change was not one of finances, but one that involved system change.

From all corners of the world this call for system change is inspiring initiatives to educate and mobilise the grassroots. Whether it is in the Niger Delta of West Africa, in rural China, in Europe or Latin America there is a worldwide movement to reclaim the earth. In Latin America, the indigenous movement has recognised this need for system change and it is from Bolivia where we have been signalled that there will be new first laws granting all nature equal rights to humans. From Bolivia we have heard of The Law of Mother Earth, which was agreed on at an international meeting of April 2010. This Law of Mother Earth redefines Bolivia’s rich mineral deposits as ‘blessings’ and is expected to lead to radical new conservation and social measures to reduce pollution and control industry. In the African philosophy of Ubuntu, humans and nature share the biosphere and our ancestors taught us to respect nature and eschew the idea of domination over nature.

Slowly, the promise of those who are fighting for a new earth is gaining ground, and in her passing, Wangari Maathai has again shone the light on the need to save Africa and to save the forests. Those who believe that this is an overnight project falter quickly. This was the experience of the Pan African Green belt movement. Working from the inspiration of Wangari Maathai and other Kenyan women, there had been an attempt to develop the Pan African Greenbelt movement in 1986. Those who placed themselves at the leadership of this exercise did not realise that planting trees and watching them grow require a new kind of political engagement. The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance is a new kind of Pan Africanism and the aspiring forces from this formation will do well to read very carefully the words of Wangari Maathai. She has left her writings for us to consider. From Bolivia, those who are struggling for the rights of Mother Earth have outlined the same rights that Wangari Maathai articulated in the African context. The declaration of the Bolivians on the rights of Mother Earth outlined the following rights: The right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. This declaration was reminder that the struggles that Wangari Maathai engaged in Kenya was part of a worldwide struggle.

Imperial planners, ever adept at cooptation, are now planning to co-opt the ideas of this movement that is growing in all corners of the world. After nearly a decade of promoting ‘sustainable development’ the World Bank has suddenly become an environmental movement with its new mantra being ‘Green growth.’ The thinkers within the bank cannot see the contradiction between the terms 'green' and 'growth'.

Wangari Maathai had pierced through these contradictions and came to the understanding that spiritual renewal is central to environmental justice. In her book, ‘ Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World’, she wrote:

‘Through my experiences and observations, I have come to believe that the physical destruction of the earth extends to us, too. If we live in an environment that's wounded­where the water is polluted, the air is filled with soot and fumes, the food is contaminated with heavy metals and plastic residues, or the soil is practically dust­it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves.’

Many of us did not know how wounded Wangari had been by the cancerous conditions that degrade all of us. Her struggles with ovarian cancer should be another prod for those who connect all forms of struggle to understand that health, life, environment and peace are all interconnected. She was a living example of this interconnection. When Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, there were those who did not understand the interconnections between, peace, the environment and health but now Wangari Maathai has reminded us of that link. She wrote simply that, ‘In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves.’

Wangari Maathai kept her promise to the people of Kenya and of Africa. Those who are still in the material world have a beacon to follow in keeping the promise of Nyeri district, Dedan Kimathi and Wangari Maathai. Kenya remains in the news because of the intensity of the freedom struggle that continues in that corner of Africa. Whether it is the ongoing case of reparative justice relating to the British Gulag that is winding through the British courts and intellectual system, the legal questions of criminal violence that is before the International Criminal Court, the day to day democratic struggles or the massive drought and famine in East Africa, we understand that Kenya is at the centre of the struggle for a new world. As one young Kenyan student said to me, Wangari Maathai showed young women in Kenya that they can achieve leadership roles by dedicating themselves to struggle. This student stated clearly that Wangari Maathai showed that in the struggle, women did not have to take a back seat to men.

The best tribute we can pay to this great woman of Africa is to continue to organise so that we can gain higher levels of spiritual awareness and build the shared values for peace and social justice across the planet.

* Horace Campbell is professor of African-American studies and political science at Syracuse University. He is the author of ‘Barack Obama and 21st Century Politics: A Revolutionary Moment in the USA’. See HERE
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The trees will clap for her

By Nnimmo Bassey

Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey remembers the life of Wangari Maathai, the internationally recognised founder of the Green Belt Movement, who died on 25 September.

Wangari Muta Maathai, surrounded by her family, suddenly departed these mortal shores on 25 September 2011 in a Nairobi hospital. She will be missed for many reasons because she led an active life that stood up to power, supported the oppressed and fought for the respect of nature.

Wangari Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in Kenya. She completed her secondary education at Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959 and went on to obtain a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, USA. In 1966 she earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Still in pursuit of higher education, she received a Ph.D in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi in 1971. She was the first woman in east and central Africa to attain this feat. She was also the first to be appointed a professor in her field of study.

While being involved with some environmental and humanitarian organisations in Nairobi in the 1970s, Maathai became concerned about the deteriorating socio-environmental conditions in which poor, rural Kenyans lived. She learned how the women lacked firewood for cooking and heating, how they struggled to obtain clean water and how nutritious food was hard to get. This is when she lit onto the idea of tree planting as a solution to the web of problems confronting the women and the rural poor.

This was when the seeds were sown that later on germinated into the Green Belt Movement by 1977. The women learned that trees provided wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, material for fencing and stabilised soils and protected watersheds.

To her credit, Maathai mobilised men and women to plant over 47 million trees in her lifetime. These have helped to restore degraded environments and uplift the quality of life of many.

The struggle for a better environment drew Maathai into the political arena where she confronted the dictatorial regime of President Arap Moi in the 1980s and 1990s. These manifested in her campaign against the erection of a skyscraper in Uhuru Park in Nairobi and the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest close to Nairobi city centre. She stood with the mothers of political prisoners in a yearlong series of vigils that saw the release of 51 men by the government.

She suffered personal attacks, arrests, incarceration and insults in the course of her campaigns for democracy in Kenya. In December 2002 elections, she was elected Member of Parliament for Tetu. That election was hailed by some as the first free-and-fair election in Kenya for a generation. Her political career continued with her being appointed deputy environmental minister in 2003 by President Mwai Kibaki. She raised her voice for peace, accountability and justice in the violence that followed the contested 2007 Kenyan elections.

Her achievements include the work she did with the Green Belt Movement and other allies to ensure that the new Kenyan constitution, ratified by a public vote in 2010, was prepared on a consultative basis and that it included the right of all citizens to a clean and healthy environment.

In 2006, Maathai joined with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees around the world. After meeting that goal in less than a year a new target of 14 billion trees was set.

Maathai was a women who stood out and drew positive attention to Africa while fighting to better the lot of her people and the environment. She was the first African Nobel Peace Laureate (2004); an environmentalist of note; a scientist; parliamentarian; founder of the Green Belt Movement; advocate for social justice, human rights, and democracy; elder; and peacemaker. She won several other awards, including some bestowed on her by governments. These include: the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003). Maathai also received awards from many organisations and institutions throughout the world, including: the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984); and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the US, Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others.

Her books reveal key milestones in her life and struggles: ‘The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience’ (2003); ‘Unbowed’ (2006), her autobiography; ‘The Challenge for Africa’ (2008), and ‘Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World’ (2010).

Maathai is survived by her three children -Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

‘Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.

‘You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.’

If no one applauds this great woman of Africa, the trees surely will.
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Committed to justice for people and planet

By Margaretta wa Gacheru

Wangari Maathai ‘achieved more in one short lifetime than most people can even contemplate,’ writes Margaretta wa Gacheru, founding ‘one of the most important environmental movements in the world’ and highlighting ‘the capacity of African rural women to problem-solve for the planet’.

News of Wangari Maathai’s demise on Sunday 25 September spread around the world like wildfire. I read about the Nobel Prize winner’s death online at early Monday morning, but it was on all the leading global news sites from Moscow to Muscat to Madrid.

What’s striking is that Dr Maathai is one person who (for better or worse) got heaps of global media coverage in her lifetime, not only at her demise, which is rare. Usually, one has to wait for someone’s obituary to find out all the incredible tidbits about their life. But not Wangari: She was a news maker whose charismatic leadership and controversial stands for noble causes, however popular or unpopular, made her front page news since the 1970s in Kenya and a headliner in international news most often in this new millennium.

This is not to say that Wangari sought the limelight. No! The woman simply sought justice and equity and the ‘best practices’ in all arenas, particularly in government – where she knew, for instance, that women deserved equal treatment to men, and jobless people were just as entitled to jobs as any other human being. Even the Greenbelt Movement grew out of Wangari’s sense of justice and the need to take care of the planet as well as the people who were suffering as a consequence of deforestation, poverty, and poor social policies that neglected the plight of the vast majority of the people.

Wangari’s first commitment was to the Kenyan people, particularly to Kenyan rural women. This I discovered way back in the late 1970s when she was Chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya and head of the Environment Committee which would eventually become the Greenbelt Movement.

At the time of our meeting, Wangari’s commitment to social justice for both the people and the planet was palpable; which is why I came away from that first interview (I was working for Hilary Ng’weno’s Nairobi Times at the time) feeling this was a woman who could not only become the president of Kenya one day.

I felt as if she could become President of Africa; if such a position ever came into being she’d fill the bill perfectly. She had the vision, the conviction, the brilliant ideas and the burning passion to serve as an instrument for the good of her people.

Back then, Wangari made it clear to me that leadership was not a task she took lightly. On the contrary, she had been taught by the nuns early on in her life that the blessings bestowed on her in the form of a good education and opportunities to excel were gifts she had to apply and use to advance the lives of others less fortunate than herself.

Her combination of sincerity, conviction and humility was awesome because at the time, she was already holding positions of authority and power – as head of the Veterinary Anatomy Department at University of Nairobi and as Chair of NCWK (a job that was generating jealousy and envy against Wangari who had already begun moving mountains and making waves).

And yet, what was clear even then was that she had just begun to fulfill her immense leadership capacity. And even now, I content that in spite of her becoming a world-acclaimed environmentalist as well as a grounded social activist and former Kenyan MP, Wangari had barely scratched the surface of all she could have achieved if she hadn’t been blocked so often by lesser beings who were either jealous, envious, intimidated or threatened by her honesty, intelligence and charismatic leadership and authority.

As it was Wangari achieved more in one short lifetime than most people can even contemplate: She founded one of the most important environmental movements in the world, and one that spotlighted the capacity of African rural women to problem-solve for the planet; she ran for Parliament and won (although she was sorely under-utilized by the Kibaki government); and she succeeded in battle against one civilian dictator who attempted to grab public land in the heart of Nairobi for his personal self-aggrandisement.

Her Nobel Prize in 2004 was for her successfully showing the world the clear-cut connection between resource depletion (and extraction), poverty and war. She was honored for identifying how protecting the earth’s natural resources is an important peace-making strategy

My one disappointment with Wangari is that in 1992 when the National Commission on the Status of Women called on her to run for the presidency, she declined. She noted that since she was from the same constituency as Mwai Kibaki, she didn’t want to split the vote.

But what if she had run? What if she had won? I’m convinced she could have, and then where would we be today?

We can say there is no point speculating on ‘what could have been’, but we can know and trust that Wangari’s spirit still reigns in our hearts and that her spirit is still with us.
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‘Africa has lost a Great Daughter’

By  Thandika Mkandawire

Wangari Maathai was ‘an amazing person’, writes Thandika Mkandawire, relating a story about how Maathai defied the Kenyan government’s attempt to prevent her from attending a ‘subversive conference’ in Uganda.

Wangari Maathai was an amazing person. I first met her in Kampala during the CODESRIA Symposium on Academic Freedom. She arrived a day after the symposium. I was informed of her presence and her need for accommodation. I went looking for her and found her in the lobby of the hotel with a small sack of her belongings she had taken with her. When I made the obvious point that [she was] too late for the symposium, she replied, with that great smile that was her trade mark: ‘I know, but I made it’.

In Kenya of the time anyone employed in state institutions (including universities) had to seek state permission to travel out of the country to attend a conference. On this occasion the Government simply denied Kenyan academics the permission to travel to attend what must have been perceived as a subversive conference. And so Wangari travelled on land. Obviously there was no way they could stop Wangari.

Africa has lost a Great Daughter and an Inspiring Voice

* Thandika Mkandawire, former director of CODESRIA, is professor of African Development in the Department of International Development (ID) at the London School of Economics (LSE).

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 London ~ September 26 2011

Wangari Maathai:The loss of a baobab


THIS blog was named after a tree because a tree nurtures, it holds together the land and provides sustenance and a gathering point for a local community. The Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Maathai, understood these qualities better than anyone. The winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, who died on September 25th while undergoing treatment for cancer at a hospital in Nairobi, worked tirelessly over the last decades to plant over 20m trees throughout Africa. As a woman she understood that women were strong like trees; they should do the planting.

She was lionhearted. She took on Kenya's strongman, Daniel arap Moi, and stood up to the crooks in his government who were trying to steal Nairobi's central park for development. She was imprisoned and brutalised, but she won: Uhuru Park will be her legacy.

Ms Maathai's organisation, the Green Belt Movement will outlast her. In life she was marginalised and her green agenda ignored; now she is dead and cannot excoriate the ruling class for its venality, vanity and lack of vision, Ms Maathai will be reinvented as a saint and a heroine. Environmentalists should extract the highest price from African politicians seeking to burnish themselves with Ms Maathai's life: a commitment to sustainability. In particular, they should be forced to accelerate her visionary campaign to replant indigenous trees along river banks and ravines where the continent's life-giving top soil is being swept away.

This video HERE "I will be a hummingbird" is worth watching to get a sense of Ms Maathai.
About Baobab
On this blog our correspondents delve into the politics, economics and culture of the continent of Africa, from Cairo to the Cape. The blog takes its name from the baobab, a massive tree that grows throughout much of Africa. It stores water, provides food and is often called the tree of life
 September 26 2011

Earth Charter Initiative tribute to Wangari Maathai

By ECI Sec1

We are sorry to hear about the passing away of Wangari Maathai. Our prayers are with her and her family.

On behalf of all those involved in the Earth Charter Initiative, I want to express our condolences to Wangari’s family and how very grateful we are for Wangari and for all she has done.

We will miss her dearly and the Earth will too.

She was a unique human being committed to “restoring the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems”. She inspired us all in her dedication to mobilize people to help reestablish the green cover of our planet.

Wangari was an Earth Charter Commissioner. She offered valuable contributions to the discussions generated by the Earth Charter drafting process. Above all, she was a great friend and human being.

The first time I saw Wangari was in January 1997 during the first Earth Charter drafting committee meeting. Her joy and humility attracted my attention. It was funny to see how, in the midst of a complicated or academic discussion she would be able to clarify issues using simple language and directness. One day, she told us in a meeting that she would describe the Earth Charter as like when someone is at a bus stop and needs to identify a bus that will take them to a given place. Well, she said, the Earth Charter is the bus that will take us to the right place.

In 2002 at one of the preparatory committees for the Johannesburg Summit she told me that she did not have a place to stay in New York, but had managed to spend the night in the YMCA. Wangari taught us her smooth, humble, and committed way of being. In September 2005, she took the time from her busy schedule to participate in the last meeting of the Earth Charter Steering Committee. At that time, we were discussing the need to constitute the new Earth Charter International Council and the future vision for the Earth Charter Initiative. She was there giving us ideas and inspiration.

When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, it was an interesting moment for the world to see that the environment, justice, sustainability and peace issues are actually part of the same agenda.

We will miss her smile, energy and positive attitude. She had a good soul and we bid her goodbye with deep gratitude and respect.

As she wrote in the chapter on Gratitude and Respect of her book Replenishing the Earth, “gratitude is the simple acknowledgement of the bounty with which you have been blessed and a sense of responsibility for using it wisely”.

We have been blessed by you, Wangari, and we should use wisely what you have taught the world.

Mirian Vilela
Executive Director
Earth Charter International

 On 29 June 2000, at the launch of the Earth Charter in The Hague.
At that occasion, Wangari offered the remarks you can find by clicking HERE

On 18 September 2005, at the Earth Charter Steering Committee meeting in New York.

 Moscow ~ September 28 2011

Wangari Maathai - Heroine of Humanity

Professor Wangari Maathai passed on last Sunday aged 71. Her stay with us leaves a tremendous legacy of 45 million trees, the Green Belt Movement, great strides towards women's empowerment, the reduction of poverty and access to potable water, making her a true heroine of humanity, whose memory will remain with Africa and with the world for eternity.

Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in the Nyeri District in Kenya's Central Highlands. She was educated in Kenya and the USA and was the first woman in central/eastern Africa to receive a doctorate degree - from the University of Nairobi - in 1971. In 2002 she was elected to the Kenyan Parliament and rose to the position of Assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources.

Professor Wangari Maathai leaves her mark among us as one of those enlightened human beings whose extreme intelligence, organizational capacity and tremendous drive was matched with a simple, humble and very warm approach to life and that non-intrusive way of being with fellow human beings which celebrates the noble of spirit.

Her legacy is tremendous: A Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, environmental campaigner, campaigner against poverty, campaigner for women's rights, for the empowerment of women and campaigner for access to clean drinking water...the result is equally staggering: she was the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya through which women in rural communities planted trees to increase their quality of life. By establishing tree nurseries and plantations, these women insured greater access to drinking water (as the trees created ecosystems which retained water in the soil, also combating deforestation) and also provided themselves with more firewood for cooking. She was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel peace Prize (2004).

Since it was established, the Green Belt Movement has been responsible for the planting of around 45 million trees in Africa and has assisted 900,000 women to create tree nurseries. Ms. Maathai was a patron of the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and was the inspiration behind the UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign, which encourages people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities.

In recent years she served as UN Messenger of Peace and was appointed a member of the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group, set up by the United Nations Organization to advance progress on reaching the Millennium Development Goals on reduction of hunger, poverty and disease and increasing access to education, women's empowerment and human rights by 2015.

Remembering her for her life-long commitment to environmental sustainability and the empowerment of women, the following were among the many accolades she received:

"Her passing is a loss for the people of Kenya and the world... a globally recognized champion for human rights and women's empowerment" and a "pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

"She was a visionary who saw over the tree canopy, but never lost sight of the roots," Jan McAlpine, Director of the Secretariat of the UN Forum on Forests.

"Wangari Maathai was a force of nature...While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction. She was, like the acacias and the Prunus Africana trees Wangari fought so nobly and assiduously to conserve, strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

Timothy Bancroft-Hinchey / Pravda.Ru
 (The Peoples Press) ~ 27 September 2011

A Death Many Will Mourn: Wangari Maathai Passes Away at 71

Maathai confronting hired security at the Karura Forest (Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images)

A remarkable, extraordinary and committed woman, Wangari Maathai has passed away at a hospital in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi at the age of 71 after succumbing to cancer. The founder of the eco-friendly Green Belt Movement, human rights activist and an inspiration to many, Maathai was the first female African to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

Born a year after the onset of World War II, Maathai went onto studying at the University of Pittsburgh in the United States majoring in biology and later on studied in Germany and then returned to the University of Nairobi becoming the first Kenyan female to earn a master’s degree.

She recalled in her 2004 Nobel Peace prize acceptance speech, that in her childhood she saw “forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water.”

This later on gave birth to her Green Belt Movement in 1977 which encouraged and assisted women to plant trees for a natural supply of firewood, clean drinking water and other vital materials and in turn gave a sum of money to those who did plant any trees.

Maathai lashed out at the Western style of mass consumption that was “wasteful” along with the rampant corruption that came with markets. After carefully observing the situation, Maathai concluded that she had to attack poverty at some of its roots.

She described how the women she met “recounted that unlike in the past, they were unable to meet their basic needs..due to the degradation of their immediate environment as well as the introduction of commercial farming.”

Maathai also reminisced during her speech of her childhood when she saw “thousands of tadpoles, black, energetic in the water against the brown earth…this [legacy] is what my mother gave me..and now, 50 years later, the stream is all dried up.”

Maathai believed that a safe, healthy and nourishing environment could help save lives and prevent conflicts over what should be trivial matters, such as basic resources.

The Green Belt Movement then rapidly grew from an environmental/semi-human rights organization into a front that fought against government corruption, corporate abuses and for the greater good of people in both her native Kenya and the rest of the African continent.

Kenya’s former president called her a mad woman. Seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, Wangari Maathai was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, a natural wonder Maathai believed could reduce poverty and conflict.

The Green Belt Movement was so successful that more than 30 million trees were planted just in Kenya and inspired the United Nations itself to launch the ongoing Billion Tree Campaign that has so far resulted in nearly TWELVE BILLION trees being planted.

Amusingly, Maathai herself was the subject of being too successful when her husband divorced her in 1979 admitting that she was “too educated, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.”

However, up through the 1980 s and 1990 s, Maathai and others became a growing nuisance for the Kenyan government led by the notorious former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi who only cared about the political elite and the rich.

Daniel arap Moi himself labeled Maathai as a threat and a “mad woman” which led to beatings, multiple incarcerations, beatings, arrests for treason and government harassment.

Among the most prominent protests she led were the protests against the construction project in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in 1989, the hunger strikes for the release of political prisoners and the 1999 attempts to reclaim lands given as political gifts by the Kenyan government which resulted in a close battle involving Maathai and some of her supporters against approximately 180 people armed with machetes.

International spotlights and outrage were swung on Kenya when Maathai was injured after she tried to plant a tree in the said lands.

Later, Maathai would join the Jubilee 2000 which called for the cancellation of the debts of numerous third world countries by the year 2000.

Things became considerably more peachy for Maathai after Daniel arap Moi retired from politics.

Maathai served as deputy minister of the Environment and Natural Resources Ministry of Kenya for five years after winning a seat in parliament in 2002.

She then continued her former activities in the Green Belt Movement.

Most recently, in 2010, when Kenya was drafting the constitution, Maathai successfully convinced officials to insert a clause into the constitution which guaranteed a life of good quality (clean, safe and healthy environment) for Kenyans.

And now, this wonderful woman, this “Tree Mother of Africa” who long condemned the destructive nature of humanity and battled decades of corruption has regrettably passed away at the age of 71.

Rest In Peace.

September 26 2011

Wangari Maathai: Death of a visionary

Wangari Maathai receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo - the first black African woman to do so

Wangari Maathai's compelling life story is inextricably linked with the social and political changes that so much of Africa has been through since the idea of throwing off European colonialism began to gain traction shortly after World War II.

Her unique insight was that the lives of Kenyans - and, by extension, of people in many other developing countries - would be made better if economic and social progress went hand in hand with environmental protection.

The Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, has planted an estimated 45 million trees around Kenya.

The straightforward environmental benefits of that would have been important enough on their own in a country whose population has grown more than 10-fold over the last century, creating huge pressure on land and water.

But what made the movement more remarkable was that it was also conceived as a source of employment in rural areas, and a way to give new skills to women who regularly came second to men in terms of power, education, nutrition and much else.

Now, she has succumbed to a battle with cancer. But if cancer was new to her, battle was definitely not; it was a way of life.

Opposing a major government-backed development in Nairobi, she was labelled a "crazy woman"; it was suggested that she should behave like a good African woman and do as she was told.

Her former husband made similar comments when suing for divorce: she was strong-willed, and could not be controlled.

This alone gives some idea of the battles Dr Maathai fought in the politically active phase of her life, which encompassed and indeed wove together the ideals of helping Kenya develop sustainably and helping Kenyan women achieve equality.

But without the progress of post-colonial reforms, it's doubtful that she would have been able to achieve a fraction of what she did; the times she lived in generated the tides she fought against, but they also provided the means with which to fight.

Dr Maathai highlighted the damage that illegal logging was doing to forests and livelihoods

Post-colonial links with the West offered Africans of great intellect but poor background the chance to study abroad, in the US and Germany.

This brought her the knowledge of biology and the PhD that both opened doors in corridors of influence and gave scientific underpinning to the environmental restoration work on which she embarked.

Another vital strand in her life was the creation of global environmental organisations, in particular the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) in 1972.

These organisations desperately needed to tap into expertise in the developing world, especially because it was in these countries that the vicious circle of environmental degradation, unsustainable population growth and poverty was at its most grinding.

With its headquarters situated in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Wangari Maathai was one of the first people from the developing world adopted into the Unep "family", which meant global exposure and, relatively, a huge influence.

Among other things, that meant the capacity to spread the Green Belt philosophy to other countries where the ecological and economic need is even more pressing than in Kenya - notably the Congo Basin, where warring factions and deep poverty have put huge pressure on forests and the wildlife they maintain.

Eventually, this would all lead to the award in 2004 of the Nobel Peace Prize - the first time it had gone to an African woman, and arguably the first "green Nobel".
Tourists flock to Lake Nakuru's flamingos - an example of environmental protection bringing revenue

I say "arguably" partly because previous prize-winning work had contained an environmental component, such as that of Paul Crutzen, Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina who deciphered the chemistry of ozone depletion.

And partly because the citation itself does not explicitly mention the word "environment", reading: "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace".

In other words, it's not just planting trees - it's the reasons why trees are planted, it's the social side of how the tree-planting works, it's the political work that goes alongside tree-planting, and it's the vision that sees loss of forest as translating into loss of prospects for people down the track.

There is, in some parts of the world, a backlash now against these ideas.

Every couple of days an email comes into my inbox asserting that the way to help poorer countries develop is to get them to exploit their natural resources as quickly and deeply as possible with no regard for problems that may cause.

Organisations promoting this viewpoint are not, to my knowledge, based in the developing world but in the Western capitals that might make use of the fruits of such exploitation - cheaper wood, cheaper oil, cheaper metals.

It is the opposite of sustainable.

But the existence of these lobby groups can be seen as a testament to the influence that Wangari Maathai and others like her have had on global debate.

The UN initiative on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (Redd), the linking of biodiversity to livelihoods, moves to strengthen the rule of law as a pre-requisite for environmental health, and the notion that communities should gain when the natural resources they maintain are exploited - all these in part trace their roots back to Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement.

A Facebook page for tributes is laden with short but moving comments that in a way sum up everything she was and achieved.

"If all us who loved her will plant a tree on her honour: she will smile from the windows of heaven seeing green world. I will plant one today".

"You have been a true inspiration to those who love and care for nature".

And perhaps the most moving of all: "You made a difference".