On the sad passing of Wangari Mathaai

The life of Nobel peace laureate Wangari Mathaai was dedicated to the environment by planting trees for peace.

Wabgari Maathai greeting
Wangari Maathai was beaten by a mob after confronting private developers, but her initiative ensured 30m trees were planted in Africa – with the help of 900,000 women  [EPA]

Millions mourn Wangari Maathai. She was Africa’s first female Nobel laureate, passing away from ovarian cancer on September 25 in Nairobi, Kenya. Diagnosed with the disease a year before her passing, Maathai kept her illness a private matter. In what’s rumoured to be her last public interview with Drum Magazine, a South African lifestyle monthly which has its roots in the apartheid era, Maathai casually remarked of her health, “I guess when you hit my age you start to slow down”.

The gradual deterioration of her body may have forced Maathai to postpone the Drum interview several times “owing to hospital visits” and to cut back on public engagements, but it never stopped her believing that creating a better, greener world was possible. Buried as a national hero for her contribution to the fight to save the environment, Maathai will be honoured with posthumous titles and awards from esteemed institutions all over the world, but perhaps more meaningful work would be acts honouring her good work.

The life and times

Over her long career as an environmentalist, academic, activist and feminist, all in one, Maathai was repeatedly beaten, threatened with rape, imprisoned and harassed by a dictatorial Kenyan government which did not take kindly to freedom-loving female upstarts. Her 1992 demand that political prisoners be freed got her beaten into a coma and her offices ransacked and vandalised by state security.

In both the public national and private domestic spheres, Maathai suffered for not being a “good African woman”. She was horribly divorced from a traditionally patriarchal husband and derided by an authoritarian masculinist government. As an African feminist, not the lazy cliche of a man-hating, bra-burning White middle-class woman in the West, her lived experience enabled her to better understand the emancipatory potential women could have as empowered actors in African politics and in preserving the environment.

Born after the beginning of the Second World War in 1940, Maathai was educated in the US on goodwill programmes such as the Kennedy Airlift, a scholarship for Kenyans, similarly awarded to Barack Obama’s father to read for his PhD at Harvard. After her return from the US, Maathai earned a doctorate in veterinary anatomy and a teaching position at the University of Nairobi.

In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement, an organisation that aimed to help Kenyan women plant trees to fight off the advancing barren, dry sands of the Sahara. With the help of donors, Green Belt paid rural women two cents to plant a tree indigenous to the region which could survive a semi-arid savannah climate on little water – rather than exotic, luscious trees that would suck up all the reserves. To date, with the help of 900,000 women, Green Belt has planted an estimated 30m trees in Africa.

What do women planting trees have to do with peace?

For her efforts to preserve the earth and peace, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Prize. Respected Norwegian personalities who objected to her award felt Maathai’s work was strictly environmental, not political. At a time when white phosphorus rained over Iraq, Israeli mortars shelled homes in Gaza and Sudan’s warlords violently wrestled for control of Darfur, the award, it was argued, should have gone to a more easily recognisable peace activist. Critics didn’t get that the work of planting trees was essentially political work.

The people living in Iraq, Gaza and the Darfur region lived under different kinds of modern conflict and occupation, all of which were and are linked to a struggle for natural resources – be it for oil, raw minerals or historical claims to land. In encouraging people to plant trees, Maathai helped to give ordinary women a sense of ownership and responsibility in protecting the land; a pawn male political leaders have often used in wars to exert their territorial and military might.

Maathai’s work illustrated how good governance was inextricably linked to the conservation of the natural environment, the livelihood of rural African communities, particularly women. Seeing the link between the impact of war on a specific society’s gender roles and the fierce competition for resources is crucial to understanding how and why Africa has been such a complex battleground for so long. Planting a tree may seem a simple environmentally friendly act, but trees and their many by-products are an integral part of the natural ecosystem and in times of war, a community’s safe access to and control of a patch of forest can be the difference between whether a woman is raped or not.

In rural parts of warring Congo and previously during the Angolan civil war, women feared going out to get firewood in case they were raped by guerrilla or state military. The task of fetching wood then fell to the men and young boys, but some did not return. They were kidnapped as new adult recruits or boy soldiers. If more communities had control over the forests, it would not stop any current wars, but with the respective government’s assistance, it may reduce the incidences of sexual violence and forced military drafting which would likely characterise future wars.

In many parts of Kenya, Green Belt helped rural folk realise their right to control and protect their green space. This gave them more of a say in the political management of the area and decisions such as clearing tracts of land for modern development were no longer handed down by an autocratic government. In one famous campaign, Maathai led a crusade of women to rally against then-President Daniel Arap Moi’s plans to pour concrete over Uhuru Park. Supported by teams of protesting women on Nairobi’s largest lawn, Maathai successfully prevented Moi from building a 62-storey party headquarters and a towering two-storey statue of him.

Tomorrow’s world

It is easier to identify the greatest challenge to the world than it is to sum up Maathai’s legacy to Africa in one neat paragraph. In the context of the Nile River’s potential water war erupting between ten countries, famine in the Horn of Africa and a profoundly changing Arab World, perhaps this is her most salient point:

If we are going to manage our resources sustainably, efficiently, if we are going to share them equitably, we need democratic space. It is impossible to manage resources responsibly and sustainably in a dictatorship, because in such a situation you have a few people controlling the resources at the expense of the many, and therefore, you cannot have peace.
In Depth

More from Tendai Marima:

  Has the AU done too little, too late?
  African protest fever: Which country is next?
  Asiagate: Zimbabwe’s match-fixing scandal
  Sudan: Mission impossible or mission failure?
  Our seas of dead Africans

It’s true. When a country’s elected or self-appointed administrators are bent on stealing for personal gain rather than sharing equitably, the end result is conflict or successive governments of corrupt plutocrats and generations of dispossessed, powerless poor people.

Green Belt’s environmental work record in Kenya and six other African countries illustrates the importance of empowering those who have the least say. Especially those whose livelihoods, family heritage and food security are most affected by a country’s decision to extend an invitation to China and India to exploit fishing, energy and mining resources or a desire to profit from the West’s scramble for farmland in the Global South.

In two months’ time, the world’s leaders will meet in Durban, South Africa for a climate change conference which follows up on the promises and disappointments of Kyoto, Copenhagen and Cancun. But it is already expected European diplomats will deliberate and dodge all legally binding commitments to combat climate change, making it harder to ensure Cancun’s promises for cleaner technology and greater food security for less developed countries are met. As the Horn of Africa’s drought shows, poor rural women and children are disproportionately affected by unending conflict and adverse changes in weather patterns. If world leaders mourning Maathai were half as committed to tomorrow’s future as she hoped, concrete progress in Durban would ensure her work as an environmental feminist lived on. The earth desperately needs 30 million more trees in her soil.

Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London, whose research interests include African literature and global feminist theory.

Follow her on Twitter: @KonWomyn

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.



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