A Pioneering African Environmentalist's Legacy Lives On

By Bob Seay

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Oct. 14, 2011

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai with Linda Harrar in 1989 in Nairobi's Karura Forest, Kenya. (Jill Singer)

BOSTON — Last week, three African women were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia; a peace activist Leymah Gbowee, who helped to end Liberia's 14-year civil war, and human rights activist and journalist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen, who has been called "the Mother of the Revolution" in that country.

These three women follow in the footsteps of another pioneering African woman leader.

Making History

Last month, the world heard news of the death of Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai (pronounced wan-GAR-ee mah-THI), who in 2004 became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the leader of the Green Belt Movement, a women-led effort to plant trees.

Using segments from an interview in WGBH's Media Archive from the 1990 series Race to Save the Planet, former Nova producer Linda Harrar offered this personal remembrance.

"The first time I met Wangari Maathai, in 1988 in Nairobi, Kenya, she was a little reluctant to be interviewed. She shook her head and said, 'I get into a lot of trouble because I have a very big mouth!' Then she burst into laughter, flashing her unforgettable smile," Harrar said.

A Vision Is Born

As a strong critic of the government, and a courageous fighter for the environment, Maathai did get into a lot of trouble over the years because of her outspokeness. During the 1980s, Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi labeled the Green Belt Movement "subversive." Maathai was arrested, beaten unconscious and thrown in jail for her protests to save parks and forests from development. But she managed to capture the attention of the world, and through her willingness to put her own life on the line, won many of her most important battles.

Maathai started her career wanting to work on preventing childhood malnutrition. In the process, she realized soil erosion was one of the root causes, and that planting trees would be key to solving it.

In the 1990 WGBH series Race to Save the Planet, Maathai said, "I know for certain that the soil is the sustainer of life. Without it, we cannot live. On this continent, we have seen too much suffering, starvation, due to degradation of the soil, and it has taken millions of years to build this topsoil. It is so important to protect it, because if we don't, we are on our way to the end."

Bringing Home The Brains

While Maathai received some of her education in the United States, afterwards she returned to live in Kenya for the rest of her life. Linda Harrar recalled why this was important to Maathai.

"Wangari hated the 'brain drain' of Africa's brightest students being lured away from home, and she believed that Africans need to develop their own leaders to solve the continent's problems," Harrar said. "But she also understood the need for foreign aid to get some promising programs started."

After earning her PhD in Kenya, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which organized communities of poor women to plant trees and tend to them until they were strong. The women earned a small income for doing this work, in a land where jobs are very hard to find. The Green Belt Movement also taught children to grow green belts around their schools. And it taught farmers to plant trees in rows between their crops, which helps to restore nutrients to the soil.

Dr. Wangari Maathai in 2007 at a garden dedication at the Al Raby School for Community and Environment in Chicago. (via Flickr/Creative Commons)


Making The Mission Possible

Maathai wanted her movement to start with planting trees because it is something that anyone can do. The universality, she said, would help people access the movement.

"Then during the tree-planting campaign, you bring out all the other issues that are very much related: the issues of food production, firewood crisis, soil erosion. All these are part and parcel of what we are discussing, but when we first discuss, we start with the immediate problems, the local problems, the problems we can see every day," Maathai said.

Harrar says the movement planted over 30 million trees.

"Maathai would sometimes say that the healing of Africa is still only a dream. But she understood her own power to inspire people, of all ages and cultures to get behind her," Harrar said.

Maathai also had her human moments of doubt.

"Sometimes I get very discouraged because the problems are just enormous, and although the people are very willing, sometimes they really think that you can solve all these problems at once, and you can't," Maathai said. "But sometimes I also get very encouraged, especially when I see these trees growing in the nursery, or when they're so big that you see the farmers happy in their fields. It's very satisfying. So I go up and down all the time. And most of the time, I think I'm on the better side."

Crossing The 'Vale Of Tears'

What did Harrar find most striking about Wangari Maathai's work?

"Perhaps what I admired so much was Wangari's ability to keep fighting for what she believed in – and to inspire others not to lose heart. I last saw her just after 9/11, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when she was comforting us as Americans for all that we had lost when the Twin Towers fell. One of her best friends had lost a daughter. She of course knew that life can be what she called 'a vale of tears,' but she would always find a way to find strength in what she believed in," Harrar said.

Maathai reflected on why the work mattered so much to her.

"I don't really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me there is a problem and I have got to do something about it, so I'm doing something about it," Maathai said. "I think that that is what I would call the God in me. And all of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. And it must be this voice that is telling me to do something. And I'm sure it's the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet, at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet!" Maathai said.

Linda Harrar said Wangari Maathai's legacy should serve as a source of inspiration for all of us.

"So here's an idea. If you're feeling sad or depressed, or cynical about the many problems of the world, think of Wangari Maathai's example: Get out and plant a tree, get your kids to plant a tree. It's something you can do for the future. And it would make Wangari smile that dazzling smile," Harrar said.

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