Wangari Maathai, the woman I knew

Posted: 26 September 2011

Author: John Vidal, Environment Editor, The Guardian

Wangari Maathai, Kenyan social activist and environmental crusader who founded the Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize winner, has died. 

Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai.

When Wangari Maathai first came to Britain in 1988 as an almost unknown African social activist, all we knew about her was she was a middle-aged scientist who had been beaten up by the Kenyan government for opposing the development of a Nairobi park, and was working with a group of women planting trees.

She gave a short talk to a few human rights and environmental groups, and within half an hour probably changed the agenda for a generation of activists who, until then, had barely considered poverty in Africa to be part of the global debate.

Her fierce denunciation of the rich north, that day, was shocking: "The top of the pyramid is blinded by insatiable appetites backed by scientific knowledge, industrial advancement, the need to acquire, accumulate and over-consume. The rights of those at the bottom are violated every day by those at the top," she said.

Her disdain for the economics promoted by Britain, the World Bank, and the west was huge: "The economic and political systems are designed to create more numbers, population pressures show no sign of waning, deforestation and desertification continue. The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs."

Her solution, to work with the poorest and most vulnerable women to repair their own degraded environments and empower themselves, proved inspirational. Planting trees became a worldwide symbol of hope and community regeneration. The Green Belt Movement that she started, evolved into one of the first truly worldwide, grassroots, self-help organisations. Over the next 20 years, billions of trees were planted by women around the world as a direct result of her work.

Her anger with the west and her disappointment with a succession of Kenyan governments never abated. But after she unexpectedly won the Nobel peace prize in 2004, she become a powerful voice of African women. From being dismissed by governments as a dissident, she was embraced by them as they turned to the environment as a fig leaf for their other destructive policies.

I planted trees with her, met her family and went to her village in Ihithe, a village of peasant farmers near Nyeri in the foothills of the Aberdare mountains. She hated the way the land all around had been taken over by tea plantations grown for export, when it could be far better used by families to feed themselves. She was wary of ping-ponging around the world to give inspirational talks to presidents and parliaments.

She knew she was in danger of being captured by the very elites she worked so hard to overthrow, but, she said, there was no other way to affect change. "My heart is in the land and women I came from," she said when I last met her.

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