27 Sep

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them”. The author of these thoughtful words was one of Africa’s prize possessions. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist made it her life’s mission to empower and more importantly teach country women to plant trees. This extraordinary individual was the first female Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her outstanding work on sustainable development, democracy and peace. “She started a group in 1977, encouraging women to collect native tree seeds in the wild, cultivate them and set up tree nurseries for livelihood and paid them a small sum of money for any trees they planted”. Her goal was to ensure that poverty stricken families had access to firewood for cooking and water to drink.

She came to the realization that all was a meaningless struggle without having a democratic, accountable government. During the course of her commendable and inspiring life, she fought vehemently against government corruption and corporations that benefit from profits and development at the expense of their population. “Time and again, post-independence African governments have be n unprincipled or blatantly corrupt, beholden to only a small set of cronies or elites”, “Too many in leadership positions have plundered national resources, persecuted political rivals and citizens who dared to question their actions, and even stoked violence within and across national borders, all the while crushing the hopes of ordinary citizens to make an honest living. Few have consented to share power freely or supported development of a vibrant civil society”.

Her profound work and determination was seen as a thorn in the side of government in the 1980’s and 1990’s. She was charged with treason, was harassed and beaten numerous times. But this did not deter her or break her spirit.

After successful protests in 1989, she was elected to parliament in 2002. This exemplified her perseverance and strong-willed nature. She was elected as part of the Opposition Rainbow Coalition who then defeat the ruling Kenyan African National Union Party.

In 2010, when the new Kenyan constitution was being drafted, she along with the Green Belt Movement successfully pushed for the inclusion of a clause guaranteeing Kenyans the right to a clean and healthy environment. Maathai not only campaigned for environmental change but also climate change, portraying her love for the preservation of our beautiful earth.

This exceptional woman sadly passed away on September 26, 2011. We as fellow African women should look to her life’s work for inspiration. She changed her environment one tree at a time. Her contributions to saving our planet and her achievements are recognized by many, but how many of us (up until today) recognize her efforts. We always (myself included) look across the vast seas for inspiring female role models who empower others. What we fail to realize is that we have these extraordinary female role models on our doorstep, fellow African women like Wangari Maathai. It only takes one person to initiate change and with role models like Wangari Maathai as an inspiration, change can be achieved.

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other”– Wangari Maathai (1940-2011).


Dixon, R. (2011).Wangari Maathai dies at 71; Kenyan Environmentalist. Los Angels Times http://www.latimes.com/news/obituaries/la-me-wangari-maathai-20110927,0,1217652.story

[Accessed online: 27 September 2011]


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