“The generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price. That is the problem.”
– Wangari Maathai
It is very easy to write a disillusioned article about the leadership of my country, Nigeria, and even the rest of my continent, Africa. There are many things to be unhappy about, ranging from the way we care for our environment to issues of human rights and our economy. Oftentimes, I find my writings calling out for people who would lead us right and ensure the labour of our heroes past will never be in vain. This week, I am choosing to write about a hero past with the hope that we can be inspired to always choose service for humanity over greed. Greed is the fastest way to accelerate the extinction of the human race.
I recall the first time I saw Wangari Maathai was in New York spring meeting in 2002 at the United Nations. I was among thought leaders, ambassadors, environmentalists and politicians who had converged for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. I was familiar with her work as a fellow environmentalist but not her person. There we were in one of the sessions discussing policies that were needed in countries to protect the environment when Wangari strolled in. To say her appearance was extremely unassuming would be putting it mildly. It was an international gathering where everyone was dressed formally either conventional like the West or in a more traditional attire representing the culture of the country being represented. One thing nobody had on was a pair of footwear that looked like bathroom slippers. No one, that is, but Wangari Maathai. I can still see how she strolled into the hall in her usual matching head scarf and wrapper. She wasn’t about to conform to the standard, the standard would conform to her.
I didn’t recognise her at the time and the Nigerian in me recoiled at such a look in a gathering like that; “What will people say?”
I quickly was to learn better and in no time was on my feet along with the rest of the room, clapping and in awe of the woman in bathroom slippers. During the session, Wangari was called to deliver a speech and her words, the power behind her thoughts, blew the room away. I have never forgotten that moment.
Born in Nyeri, rural Kenya, in 1940, Wangari was one woman who was very vocal about social and environmental justice in her country. She believed the two were linked and could not be tackled in isolation. That was one of her driving forces for creating the Green Belt Movement in 1977. Her goal was to plant trees across Kenya, alleviate poverty and end conflict. She was driven by a perceived connection between environmental degradation and poverty and conflict.
“Poor people will cut the last tree to cook the last meal,” she once said. “The more you degrade the environment, the more you dig deeper into poverty.”
She mobilised Kenyans, particularly women, to plant more than 30 million trees, and inspired the United Nations to launch a campaign that has led to the planting of 11 billion trees worldwide. More than 900,000 Kenyan women benefited from her tree-planting campaign by selling seedlings for reforestation.
The news in 2011 of Wangari Maathai’s death inspired reflection on her important dedication both to the African environment, and to the political scene in Kenya. Wangari wasn’t Nigerian but what she stood for in Kenyan isn’t exclusive to only her country. Here in Nigeria, we also struggle with impeding deforestation, saving African biodiversity and creating job places for women. There are a number of Wangari Maathai’s in the country but we need more.
The world has few female Nobel laureates, and Africa even fewer, which is why this one environmentalist stands out long after her death. Political and environmental activist Professor Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, awarded for her tireless contribution to sustainable development and for drawing attention to political oppression in Kenya. At the moment, her Green Belt Movement has successfully planted over 20 million trees and has helped women work their way out of poverty, and its enormous environmental and social impact is testament to the drive and determination of Wangari. She was also named UN Messenger of Peace in 2009, with a focus on her environmental work.
In an exclusive interview with Africa Renewal shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, she maintained that Africans “cannot afford to have a region where a few people are filthy rich and a huge number of people are in dehumanising poverty.” She was the first African female to win a Nobel Peace Prize and the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate in veterinary anatomy, which she obtained from the University of Nairobi. She studied in Kenya, the US and Germany.
Maathai wasn’t very popular with the people in power who saw her constant campaigns for social justice and constitutional reform as a nuisance. Over the course of her life, she was arrested and held in prison for “spreading malicious rumours,” she was branded a “mad woman” by a former serving president and a number of attempts were made to discredit her work. Such attempts at suppression only stoked her determination to fight harder, leading Maathai to run for parliament in 1997 as candidate for the Liberal Party, though she withdrew just before the election. In 2002, though, she returned to politics, gaining 98% of the vote to represent Tetu constituency.
Maathai died aged 71 while undergoing treatment for cancer. The political, ecological and environmental vision of such a progressive figure has left a lasting impact both on her native Kenya and across the world. From this perspective, Wangari Maathai is not dead; she has inspired and will continue to inspire many other people to make acquaintance with what their land can offer in order to cure and preserve it. So, what is the Wangari Maathai Way? It is understanding that we are planting seeds in the things we do now that will germinate in the future for those we leave behind to harvest. We owe it to the next generation to plant good seeds and clear the weeds before they completely starve the plants.