MY STORY OF THE MONTH:
Professor Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Kenyan environmentalist was born to a poor farm worker and his wife. She was bright, came top of her class at school and was one of 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States where she graduated with an MSc in biological sciences. By dint of hard work and persistence, she gained a doctorate at the University of Nairobi, the first female to achieve this in East Africa and eventually became Associate Professor of Veterinary Anatomy, the first woman to do so.
She became more and more aware that the deepest concern for Kenya, Africa and the world generally was environmental degradation. She identified overcoming this problem as key to enriching and empowering the poor and disenfranchised. She said, "In Kenya, women are the first victims of environmental degradation, because they are the ones who walk for hours looking for water, who fetch firewood, who provide food for their families."
She set up the Green Belt Movement to reforest Kenya attracting national and international funds to help with community based tree planting. Women would be paid to plant trees and husbands (more likely to have been educated) keep records. During her divorce in this period, her husband was said to believe she was, “too strong-minded for a woman” and he was “unable to control her.”
Maathai’s reputation was spreading. She led a campaign to overcome government corruption and support registration of voters and other democratic processes, so that by the end of the 1980s, under the leadership of Daniel arap Moi, she was very much a target for abuse and vilification (the authorities called her, “a crazy woman“). She was arrested by the police many times, knocked out and subjected to death threats. In the first multi-party election in 1992, she tried to unite the opposition though thanks to threats and intimidation, failed to win power. During the ensuing violence post-election, Maathai and her supporters travelled to areas of conflict trying to calm the situation. A friend and supporter, Dr Makanga was kidnapped and Maathai went into hiding.
Maathai continued to be a thorn in the side of the authorities throughout the 1990s particularly when the government planned to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. When she tried to plant a tree in an area that had been designated to be cleared for a golf course, the group was attacked. Many of the protesters were injured, including Maathai, four MPs, some of the journalists, and German environmentalists. The attack was filmed and led to public outrage. In 2001, Maathai took up an offer to work in the US.
On her return to Kenya in 2002 she took part as a candidate in the national elections and won an astonishing 98% of the vote. She joined the new government where she served in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources until 2005.
She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. The Committee said, "Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya......... She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation."
Maathai was one of the eight flag bearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics and was joint founder of the Nobel Women's Initiative. The UN made her UN Messenger of Peace and she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi bringing scientific and academic research in land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies with the Green Belt Movement approach. She died of ovarian cancer 25th September 2011.
In her Acceptance Speech for the Nobel prize, she said,“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.”