Being born a woman in colonial Kenya did not seem like the best option, but, fortunately, Wangari not only changed her life but that of thousands of African women
Wangari Muta Maathai studied biology and ecology and later became a political activist. Her vision was to unify ecology and sustainable development with democracy, human rights, and women’s empowerment, to create an optimal, humanitarian, and revolutionary system.
So, since she was very young, has been dedicated to reinforcing the values of ecology and democracy. Over the years, she has become an important political figure as a female activist, concretized since her opposition to the dictatorial regime.
This revolutionary system has been elaborated through her role in politics; regarding women, she decided to be part of the National Council of Kenyan Women, an institution she chaired between 1981 and 1987, advocating for the empowerment of Kenyan women, taking into account her concern about the extreme conditions of poverty in which thousands of Kenyan women lived.
On the other hand, her environmental activism began after this reflection:
“During my work as an applied scientist investigating food problems, I undertook studies on the life cycle of the parasite transmitted through ticks, and while collecting samples I noticed that the rivers were full of silt. That didn’t happen when I was little. There was little grass and it did not contain necessary nutrients. The soil did not fulfill its functions.”
From that reflection it was possible for her, later, to see the consequences through the demands of the peasant women, who affirmed that their streams were drying up, that their food resources were scarce and unreliable and that each day they had to go further to buy water or by firewood.
For this reason, Wangari Muta Maathai’s conclusion was clear: many of the problems of Kenya, and therefore of its women, lay in environmental degradation. And the result was convincing: her two fights came together.
She started to work hard with some African problematics, and later on, highlighting her work with the environment, without letting aside her political and humanitarian objectives, she promoted the creation of the Green Belt movement, a program that began its activities in 1976 and whose objective has focused on planting trees as a resource for improving the living conditions of the population, to achieve sustainable development. From here she adopted the name “tree woman“.
Another reason this movement was born, was due to the hunger of children, and in general, due to the poverty throughout the country, to which she assured: “We cannot sit by and watch our children starve to death”, to encourage and promote change.
The movement “Green Belt” started in a pretty simple way, Wangari Muta Maathai encouraged the women to go into the forest and collect seeds from trees native to the area and then create greenhouses, work for which the women received a stipend. Later, those seeds were used to plant trees. Because women were the ones receiving training in ecology, holding leadership roles, running nurseries, and working with foresters planning and implementing projects for water harvesting and food security, the movement was key to advancing the emancipation and empowerment of peasant women.
The Green Belt Movement gradually expanded thanks to entities such as the Norwegian Forestry Society, the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women, and the United Nations Environment Program. They were also becoming politically aware when they realized that the daily environmental problems of Kenya were also related to political problems.
This Kenyan woman, Wangari Muta Maathai, has been an example, and a relevant figure to remember. For her important role in society, she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, this meant the recognition of the long career that this woman had been doing for decades in defense of sustainable development, democracy, respect for human rights, and peace, both in her country and throughout the African continent.