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Very often women activists are advised to form alliances with men and negotiate women’s rights as they fight to reclaim their long-withheld rights from the oppressors. The expectation is that feminism must remain ‘womanly’ as it soft-steers so as not to displease their oppressors. Whilst many travelled this path, Wangari Maathai wasn’t one of them.
Professor Wangari Maathai was a foremost environmentalist, academic, political activist, and writer. She was born a native of Kenya in 1940. Through the Kennedy Airlift, she bagged a Bachelor’s degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica. This same scholarship program enabled her to earn a Master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh. She proceeded rapidly to become the first woman to obtain a PhD in East Africa.
She started lecturing in Nairobi and got to the position of associate professor in 1977. As she progressed on the academic ladder, she demanded equal benefits for the female staff of the university. In her autobiography Unbowed, she disclosed that although the court denied her demands initially, they were later fulfilled. She had begun venturing into the civic space by this time with one of her earliest stints with the Red Cross Society. She was also an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya and even served as its chairman for some time.
Growing up in a rural community exposed Professor Wangari to the suffering of women; trekking long distances to fetch wood and water, and participating in multiple unpaid jobs, therefore, denying them a chance at financial independence. With civilization came deforestation and she knew rural women would bear the brunt of the challenges. She took this as a personal affront and established the Green Belt Movement. Before the initiative, she had introduced community-based tree planting in the National Council of Women.
The Green Belt Movement was a better-structured poverty alleviation and environmental conservation scheme. The goal was simple: reducing poverty for women by conserving the ecosystem for overall improvement in their quality of life. They employed women to plant trees which will benefit them in the long run. Today, this initiative has planted 51 million trees and counting. The movement extended its impact to some African countries through a Pan African Green Belt Network that trained people from those countries to use their approach. The Green Belt Movement was committed to pro-democratic activism as well. From registering voters to insisting on constitutional reform, Wangari fought hard to install true democracy in Kenya.
She took on the autocratic Moi administration on several occasions and won each time. She tore down their grand plans to deplete forest reserves for their selfish interests. The professor protested by writing to relevant offices to obstruct extreme land-grabbing schemes and stormed the streets when it became imperative to. One endearing character of hers was that she was always at the frontline, not elsewhere dishing orders or fighting for power. The government launched a vicious physical attack on her. Each time she challenged them, she was illegally thrown into prison. Despite an international presence strong enough to rescue her, the targeted assault didn’t cease. If anything, it worsened.
Wangari, who was a victim of multiple government-sponsored assaults, refused to wear victimhood as a badge; she was unbroken and dauntless. After power changed in 2002, she ran for parliament and won by an astonishing 98% margin, then a year after, she was appointed assistant minister of environment, natural resources, and wildlife.
In recognition of her relentless efforts, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, becoming the first African woman and first African environmentalist to be honoured with the prize. She was awarded numerous prestigious awards and recognitions during her career. Her reputation for hard work earned her a seat on boards of several national and international organizations.
Throughout all of this, the tendency of society to demonize and belittle the contributions of women shone through. She faced a great deal of sexist and misogynistic criticism. The Moi administration tried to subdue her legacy by constantly referring to her with all sorts of sexually derogatory names. Even her husband divorced her on the false basis of her being a prostitute who was proving difficult to control. She was insistently and persistently outstepping the patriarchal definition of womanhood and this upset the political space to no end.
Her legacy sits at the intersection of many things: Environmentalism, feminism, political and human rights activism. Wangari Maathai died battling ovarian cancer in 2011.