I’ve been amazed by the outpouring of tributes to Wangari Maathai – academic, politician, and environmentalist – who died earlier this week. Of course, most of the coverage was due to the fact that she was awarded the Nobel Prize for peace in 2004 – something which catapulted here from relative obscurity to international acclaim. But it’s also because she led such a deeply unusual, and even inspiring, life.
What interested me about so much of the coverage was the overwhelming emphasis on her environmental activism. Of course, this is what was recognised by the Nobel committee and had such an enormous impact on women’s lives in Kenya. But I also wonder to what extent this was connected to the fact that she’s an African woman: how many times this week have you seen Maathai described as ‘Mother Earth’? And how many times have you seen references to her impressive academic career? No – not quite as frequently.
Wangari Muta was born on 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe in Kenya’s central highlands. Her parents were subsistence farmers, and would not usually have sent their eldest daughter – they had six children – to school. In interviews she said that they changed their minds when her brother, Nderitu, asked his parents why there was money to fund his education, but not Wangari’s. She was sent, then, to Loreto Limiru Girls’ High School. The Italian nuns who taught her recognised her academic potential and recommended Wangari for a scholarship to pursue tertiary study in the United States.
In 1960, Maathai was one of three hundred Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – who sent to study at American universities. In 1964 she graduated with a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St Scholastica College in Kansas and, a year later was awarded a Masters from the University of Pittsburgh. After further study in Germany she returned to Kenya in 1966, where her skills were in great demand. She joined the Department of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi, and obtained her PhD there in 1971.
Maathai was the first woman to graduate with a doctorate from an east or central African university. Her activism emerged from her work as a vet, which took her to some of the poorest parts of Nairobi, and also via her engagement in politics through her husband, Mwangi Mathai, from whom she was divorced in 1977. Mwangi accused her of being uncontrollable and strong-minded, and she was jailed briefly after she criticised the judge who had overseen their case. Later she said of the marriage:
I should have known that ambition and success were not to be expected in an African woman. An African woman should be a good African woman whose qualities should be coyness, shyness, submissiveness, incompetence and crippling dependency. A highly educated independent African woman is bound to be dominant, aggressive, uncontrollable, a bad influence.
When her husband demanded that she drop his surname, she simply added an extra ‘a’ to hers – becoming Maathai instead of Mathai.
A member of the National Council of Women in Kenya, she founded the Green Belt Movement in the year of her divorce. She explained the origins of the movement in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.
Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.
So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.
Maathai wasn’t only planting trees: the project became a means of allowing women to work to support themselves and their families. It was a practical response which benefitted both rural women and the environment. As she commented in an interview:
Much more important than the trees themselves is the mobilization of rural populations in large numbers – populations that we normally think are helpless, are dependent, are not able to do things for themselves. They organized themselves and started to address the issues in their own communities to improve their quality of life. At its peak, we’ve had over 6,000 groups of women planting trees. In the process they educate themselves and address government issues. Eventually we became a pro-democracy movement.
In 1989 Maathai took on the corrupt government of the then-Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi when he announced plans to develop Nairobi’s biggest park. She led a campaign which scuppered his plans, and in the process was marked as an enemy by Moi, who called her a ‘mad woman’. In 1992 and 1993 she faced arrest and serious threat of assassination, but, nothing daunted, her engagement in Kenyan politics only increased: she established Mazingara, the Kenyan Green Party, and entered mainstream politics in the early 2000s. She was junior environment minister between 2003 and 2005.
Since leaving politics in 2008, her work and interests broadened. Maathai became involved in international campaigns for the cancellation of third-world debt, and raised awareness about the implications of land grabs and commercial palm oil plantations. She argued that politicians’ response to climate change was wholly inadequate, and became increasingly critical of organisations like the World Bank.
Maathai is being celebrated for embodying a particular set of ideas about how a woman in the third world should behave – selflessly, fearlessly – and is praised for being ‘wise’, rather than for being clever. She is in danger of being recast as a kind of ‘Mother Africa’ figure, rather than being remembered as the woman who said: ‘I don’t see the distinction between environmentalism and feminism.’