Monday, September 26, 2011

In Memoriam: Wangaari Maathai (1940--2011)

[Image taken from here]

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.”

Wangaari Maathai

'Dr. Maathai... conceived of her Green Belt Movement out of compassion and concern for the future of her children and her homeland of Kenya. She applauds the noble, ordinary women who participate in the movement as "foresters without diplomas." Their committed solidarity and steadfast efforts in their communities are not only preventing the desertification of Africa but also raising consciousness of environmental issues in the minds of people the world over. Their service to humanity and the Earth far exceeds that of any national leader. Lawmakers should take note of this fact, recognizing the wisdom, spirit and actions of the people with the respect they deserve. Unfortunately, however, the elite who lead the world's nations--the politicians, the bureaucrats, the academics--tend to look down on such popular movements.'

Buddhist leader and poet Daisaku Ikeda on Wangaari Maathai's life and work

I just learnt earlier today that Wangaari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and scientist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, died Sunday from ovarian cancer. She was 71. Here's a description of her life and work, excerpted from the Green Belt Movement's website:

"In the 1970s Professor Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work representing women academics in the NCWK, she spoke to rural women and learned from them about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans—especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.

Professor Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

As GBM’s work expanded, Professor Maathai realized that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures. The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi. Professor Maathai initiated campaigns that halted the construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi, and stopped the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest, just north of the city center. She also helped lead a yearlong vigil with the mothers of political prisoners that resulted in freedom for 51 men held by the government.

As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Professor Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified by the Moi regime. Professor Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment."

Reading this description of Professor Maathai's life and work, I was really struck by her keen insight that poverty and environmental destruction are indicators of deep human problems such as "disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures". But rather than allow herself to be defeated by this observation, she came to the conclusion that if she could get people to work together to reverse the damage done to the environment, they could find a way to empower themselves, stand up to powerful and corrupt authorities, and build a sustainable livelihood for themselves and their families.

We have much to learn from her. Perhaps, in some way, our personal practices can also become "trees" of personal growth, allowing us to cultivate the strength and the insight to work together with others productively, empower ourselves and others, and stand up for what is right and good around us. 


  1. Thank you for giving such a thoughtful tribute to this amazing woman. People die but ideals live forever. I hope people continue to be inspired by her work and carry her legacy forward. Dr.Ikeda's description of her legacy is very apt indeed!

  2. "People die but ideals live forever."

    This is so true :-)