Home > Development, Real life Stories > Tribute to Wangari Maathai the first Female African Nobel Peace Winner

Tribute to Wangari Maathai the first Female African Nobel Peace Winner

Original caption states: "Nobel Laureate ...

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Cut one and plant ten more was Wangari Maathai’s philosophy on maintaining a healthy environment. Professor Maathai worked tirelessly to improve the lives of Africans and her commitment to conservation, democracy, women’s empowerment, the eradication of poverty, and civic engagement earned becoming the first Female African Nobel Peace Winner  She passed on in September this year having lived a full and illustrious life, she will be missed, but her legacy still lives on.

Her road was not easy. Like many change makers, she walked a tight rope. Jailed, beaten, mocked and tear gassed, she soldiered on to save the forests of Kenya. Her organization the Green Belt Movement was birthed from a realization that planting trees could actually change the lives of people. An encounter with rural women sparked an interest in trees as she realized that trees could answer the plight of many rural women. The Green Belt Movement is a grassroots movement that has harnessed people power, rural women in particular and organized them to create a force for change. These women plant trees and are paid for the seedlings that they plant giving them an income. This movement has demonstrated and created links between the environment and democracy.

Below is an extract of a question and answer session from November 2004.

How has your work over the years promoted women’s empowerment?
I placed my faith in the rural women of Kenya from the very beginning, and they have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement. Through this very hands-on method of growing and planting trees, women have seen that they have real choices about whether they are going to sustain and restore the environment or destroy it. In the process of education that takes place when someone joins the Green Belt Movement, women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women. Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, planning and implementing community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these experiences contribute to their developing more confidence in themselves and more power over the direction of their lives.

Do you see yourself as a role model for women?
Sometimes I have had difficult times. Having them and overcoming them is very important for women. They see that you don’t have to be down and under. You can get back up. Women relate to those ups and downs. But men relate to them, too. In the beginning men in Kenya were very unsympathetic; because they thought what I was doing was not appropriate. When I was put in my place, I think they thought, “good!” But then when I got up again, they could not help but admire the process. Then they started to respect me. I think that is why the Kenyan public is now very receptive to both women and men. A lot of women were also very encouraged by the fact that I was elected to Parliament in 2002, in Kenya’s first free and fair elections in nearly a quarter-century. My being elected is very important to many women. So many messages I got said, “You should have been there a decade ago!”

It’s been a tough struggle for you working with the Green Belt Movement. You have been beaten, jailed, vilified publicly and had death threats. What was most difficult?
The most difficult aspect was the fact that the former Government was completely against the Green Belt Movement and our work of mobilizing women into groups that could produce seedlings and plant them. The Government was also against the idea of educating and informing women. It didn’t want citizens to know that sometimes the enemy of the forests and the environment was the Government itself, which was supposed to be protecting the environment. If citizens saw the linkages, they would put pressure on the government to improve governance, to create democratic space, to help them protect their environment, and to be responsible managers on citizens’ behalf. When we were beaten up, it was because we were telling the Government not to interfere with the forests. We were confronted by armed police and guards who physically removed us from the forests as we sought to protect these green spaces from commercial exploitation. Sometimes in the process we got hurt, arrested or thrown into jail.

How did you keep going?
People often ask me why I was not afraid. The best way I can explain it is to say that I did not project fear. Quite often when we project the consequences of our actions, then of course we can feel fear. If you project that you might die, that you might lose the privileges of the position you hold, that you might be fired, you begin to focus on the consequences. But if you stay focused on what you want to attain, then you actually go right in there where many people would not dare to go. It’s not that I am brave, or that I do not see the consequences. But by not projecting it, I do not embrace the fear that so often stops us from pursuing our goals. Those of us who understand, who feel strongly, must not tire. We must not give up. We must persist. I always say that the burden is on those who know. Those who don’t know are at peace. It’s those of us who know that get disturbed and are forced to take action.

What is the responsibility of governments in ensuring environmental protection?
In Kenya, the area of forested land has declined to less than 2 percent, and the UN Environment Programme recommends a minimum of 10 percent for people. For people to thrive, the environment that sustains them must thrive. Governments need to be at the forefront of environmental protection. Without specific laws that protect the environment it is difficult to see how any delicate ecosystem can survive over the short-term, let alone the long-term. Unless there is political will and public acceptance of environmental protection around the world—because environmental management and protection is a global concern and responsibility—then the enormous benefits the environment bestows on us may be lost, and future generations will pay the price.

“The conditions that we fight against keep us fighting.” Martin Luther King.

“We must not give up. We must persist. I always say that the burden is on those who know. Those who don’t know are at peace. It’s those of us who know that get disturbed and are forced to take action.” Wangari Waaithai

One person can change the world, but if millions join in the force of change and change their sphere of influence we will see great all round change in our world. Your work may be in the environment, planting trees, advocating for women’s rights, democracy, poverty eradication, health and sanitation for all every little will go a long way. You may work in the corporate world, your commitment; integrity and hard work will all fuel change in our world. Let us stand up and be counted.


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