Wangari Maathai: a life of firsts

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference.

My little thing is planting trees.”

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

On 25th September Wangari Maathai, the first African female to win the Nobel Peace Prize, lost her battle with cancer. She was 71 years old.

It was with great sadness that I saw the news sweep across the world – the first inklings coming through on Twitter as we saw her name starting to trend on worldwide posts. I found the tweet that listed her as the first African woman to trend to be almost bittersweet.

She was the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D., first African woman and first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Matthai lived a life of firsts. And she lived that life well.

Wangari Matthai founded the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s, an environmental organisation focused on sustainable development, environmental conservation, and women’s rights.  She worked through the Green Belt Movement to restore degraded environments through planting trees while providing income and agency for rural Kenyans,  mainly women. In the late 80s and 90s, Wangari and the Green Belt Movement became highly involved in Kenya’s struggle to restore multi-party democracy. She was forefront of many campaigns to maintain green spaces, and stop ‘land grabbing’ by those working with the corrupt country leadership of the time.

“The government didn’t like her outspokenness. She was beaten, jailed, and vilified by the regime, derided for daring, as a woman, to challenge its prerogatives, and even evicted from her office. When Nairobi landlords were too scared to rent her suitable space, she moved the Green Belt Movement’s operations — and its 50 or so staff — to her modest home in the city. That was Wangari. She would not be silenced; she would not be side-lined, either.” – Mia MacDonald, Executive Director of Brighter Green

In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” She was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environmentand Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005.

The descriptions of Wangari as a person paint a picture of a vivacious woman. A formidable woman. A woman so powerful, purposeful and persistent that she inspired all who met her to make their own contribution to this world. The thought that someone with such charm, passion, energy, and influence is no longer with us is sad.

Yet her legacy lives on.

Those of us who witness the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless. If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk! – Wangari Maathai

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