New Historian

Planting Seeds of Hope: Wangari Maathai, part 2

<![CDATA[Last week’s article described the education and formative years of biologist, activist, planter and educator Wangari Maathai and her founding of the Green Belt movement for ecological and cultural restoration. This article describes a few of the struggles and triumphs that grew out of that movement.


By the late 1970s the Green Belt initiative was growing rapidly, as women in small rural communities across Kenya organized to start tree nurseries and reforest barren lands. Wangari Mathai was coordinating this effort while also working as a senior lecturer in veterinary medicine and raising their three children. The work was satisfying, but it came at a great personal cost. Part of that cost was simple exhaustion. The other part was more complicated. In 1977 her Parliamentarian husband Mwangi Mathai left her and her children; in 1979 he filed for divorce. No-fault divorce was not an option. Mwangi Mathai accused his wife of adultery, cruelty, and raising his blood pressure. She pled innocent. The 3-week trial that followed was widely publicized. Press reports said Mwangi Mathai was divorcing his wife for being “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.” Some people saw those as admirable qualities. The judge did not; he found in Mwangi Mathai’s favor, and agreed with him that she needed to stop using his surname. Since she was becoming well known by then, she made the smallest change possible, becoming Wangari Maathai instead of Wangari Mathai. Maathai also told the press that the judge was either incompetent or corrupt. For this she was convicted of contempt of court and sentenced to six weeks in prison, but the public outcry was so great that she was released after only three days. The divorce was a harrowing ordeal for Maathai, and later on her political enemies used it against her. But it also taught Maathai something about the power of public opinion against unjust laws. In later years she used that lesson and that power to great effect. Maathai’s public life became more difficult under Kenya’s new president, Daniel arap Moi, who disapproved of Maathai as an uppity woman (and perhaps also as a Kikuyu; politics were taking on a distinctly tribal edge) and tried to force her out of her leadership position on the National Council of Women in Kenya. When the majority of women sided with Maathai, Moi persuaded some influential members of the Council to withdraw their participation and their backing. Maathai served as chair of the council for the next seven years. In 1982 Maathai decided to run for Parliament and was disqualified on a very dubious technicality. When she tried to resume her university job (which she had resigned, as required by law, to declare her candidacy) the university refused to rehire her. Other employers were reluctant to hire a woman who had clearly made enemies in high places. President Moi was then consolidating his power; he officially declared Kenya a one-party state, and his critics tended to disappear.

Green Belt Growing

Maathai put all her time and energy into the Green Belt. Timely financial assistance from the Norwegian Forest Service and the UN allowed her to hire ‘monitors’ to visit remote sites, support women in the field and learn more about what they needed. Maathai and the monitors wanted to understand the root causes of the poverty and pollution that the Green Belt movement was designed to cure. When they asked local people about the roots of the problem they heard a consistent answer: It’s the government. They’re corrupt. They don’t care. We have no chance. Maathai knew that the government had exploited public natural resources for private gain, but she encouraged people to look at the ways in which their own lives contributed to the problem—or the solution. They couldn’t control government policy, but they could grow their own food instead of relying on cash crops and purchased foods, and they could plant trees. Green Belt meetings were always held in local languages. This helped to break down barriers between poorer people and people who had been able to afford British schooling. It also affirmed the dignity and wisdom of local traditions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the Green Belt began offering civic and environmental seminars which reminded people of the value of local traditions that had protected ecosystems and communities. Maathai wrote in her article The Cracked Mirror about how British missionaries had dismissed local traditions about the sacredness of Mount Kenya, asserting instead that God was in heaven. Many Kenyans had willingly turned their backs on their own sacred traditions. But Maathai countered, “Heaven is not above us: it is right here, right now…If believing that God is on Mount Kenya is what helps people conserve their mountain, I say that’s okay. If people still believed this, they would not have allowed illegal logging or clear-cutting of the forests…. Communities without their own culture, who are already disinherited, cannot protect their environment from immediate destruction or preserve it for future generations. Since they are disinherited, they have nothing to pass on.” The Green Belt meetings helped people to remember the value of their culture and their land. The message spread quickly. By the mid-1980s there were nearly two thousand Green Belt women’s groups in Kenya, and more than one thousand green belts being tended by schoolchildren. People from nearby countries were visiting to learn how to reforest their own land. The view from the grassroots was encouraging. But the economic and political structures were still stacked against preservation.

Protests and Prison

In 1989 an informant told the Green Belt that President Moi’s government planned to develop a substantial part of Nairobi’s largest public green space, Uhuru Park, into a sixty-story complex housing ruling party offices and high-end businesses. Maathai wrote letters to newspapers and government officials protesting that the city needed a natural space open to all more than it needed extra luxury properties for the wealthy. Getting no response, she wrote to foreign project investors to ask them to withdraw. Some Members of Parliament denounced Maathai for appealing to colonial powers and undermining Kenyan independence, but the denunciation only raised more publicity about the park. Many Kenyans wrote to the newspapers denouncing the planned tower. The Green Belt was evicted from its headquarters and forced to move into Maathai’s house, but investors backed out and the planned tower was canceled. The Green Belt had won the battle, but the war was just beginning. In 1991 Maathai joined the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) in peaceful protests calling for open elections and a free press. In 1992 multi-party elections were promised, but in January of that year, as more of Moi’s opponents were found dead in mysterious circumstances, FORD heard rumors that Moi’s government planned to have the army seize control, cancel the elections, and assassinate Maathai and other opposition figures. Ten FORD members held a press conference warning about this possibility. After the conference broke up, most speakers were arrested. Maathai barricaded herself inside her home for three days (though she attempted to lower tensions by making tea for the policemen on cold nights and handing it out a window). On the third day she was arrested and charged with treason, a capital offence. She spent that night in a cold wet cell; her arthritis flared up, and she had to be carried into court the next morning as protestors in the streets shouted, “What have you done to her?” Public opinion was strongly on Maathai’s side; she was released to the hospital on bail, and in time the charges were dropped. Mothers of other political prisoners began reaching out to Maathai, telling her that they feared for their sons who had been detained for supporting opposition parties. There were very ugly rumors about prison conditions—and anyhow, since opposition parties were no longer outlawed, why shouldn’t their former supporters be freed? Maathai agreed to accompany five mothers to the attorney general as a translator and advocate, on one condition. She didn’t expect the attorney general to listen to them, but if public opinion could be mobilized she hoped something might change. The women agreed to fast and demonstrate in Uhuru Park for three days if their sons weren’t released in that time. The AG was noncommittal, and the women went to the park with signs explaining what they were doing. Fifty more mothers joined them that day. On the following day ex-prisoners joined the group and began to speak about the torture and abuse they had suffered in prison. Journalists spread their stories. On the third day the police attacked the camp, beating anyone who didn’t leave immediately. Maathai was knocked unconscious and taken back to the hospital. When she had recovered she went back to the vigil, which had moved into an Anglican church across the street where the police were not willing to break in. That vigil continued for a year; at the end of that time, the prisoners were released.

Seeds of Peace

By then the elections had been held, and Moi and his party had triumphed over a fragmented (and sometimes intimidated) opposition. The prisoners came out into an angry and polarized society. Intertribal violence—fueled, Maathai believed, by a government that preferred to keep people divided—spread rapidly in early 1993. Maathai toured the Rift Valley, where some of the worst fighting had taken place. She listened to grieving survivors and held seminars urging people to rebuild and reconcile rather than retaliating. She suggested making this concrete by starting tree nurseries and giving trees to people from apparently hostile tribal groups. Sometimes Maathai planted trees alongside multi-ethnic delegations from war-torn communities. When the government forbade her to enter conflict zones Maathai traveled incognito for a time. As the year wore on the fighting slackened, and Maathai noted that women from warring groups did actually accept trees from one another. In 1997 Maathai ran for Parliament and lost. In 1998 she became a co-chair of the Jubilee Africa campaign, appealing for the forgiveness of loans that crippled African economies. Often those loans had been made to dictators, but their cost fell most heavily on people who had no choice in the incurring of the debt. And mounting inflation made the debts seem hopeless. Maathai noted, “Between 1970 and 2002, African countries obtained about $540 billion (US) in loans and paid back $550 billion. However, because of interest on that debt, by the end of 2002 the debtor countries still owed the lending agencies nearly $300 billion.” Then another struggle over land use called her attention back to matters close at hand. The government was privatizing and developing a large part of the 2500-acre Karura forest preserve. The Karura, located near Nairobi, served as ‘lungs’ and a windbreak for the city, and also as home to rare species including mihugu trees, Sykes monkeys, bush pigs, and hundreds of varieties of birds. Maathai wrote to officials and newspapers to protest. She also led delegations into the forest to plant trees on land that had been cleared, and appealed directly to construction workers to stop destroying the forest. After one of these speeches workers set fire to the construction equipment and then fled. The police began blocking her from entering the park. Once when the gates were barred by armed guards, Maathai snuck in through the marshes to tend her seedlings. On another occasion she went openly to the gate and planted a tree outside it, accompanied by reporters and members of Parliament. She and her group were attacked and beaten by a group of un-uniformed men. One early-bird reporter had taken photos of uniformed police talking to the assailants, and there was plenty of footage of Maathai and other protestors who’d been beaten bloody. Students from the University of Nairobi took up the cause, ramming the gate and then fleeing into a UN compound where they were pursued and beaten by police. The UN and international dignitaries began to lodge protests and complaints, and riots broke out across Nairobi. Once again the development project was quietly dropped, although some illegal logging continued until the 2002 elections swept a newly unified opposition into power. Maathai was part of that new government, a Member of Parliament and assistant in the Ministry of Environmental Resources. Two years later, in 2004, she received the Nobel Peace Prize and spoke to an international audience about the necessary connection between democracy/human rights, sustainable and equitable development, and a culture of peace. In 2007 she lost her parliamentary seat, but her national and international advocacy continued until her death from cancer in 2011. And the Green Belt movement she founded is still planting trees and working for the causes she championed. To learn more about Wangari Maathai’s life, work and legacy, read her memoir “Unbowed,” or read her biography and selected works at  ]]>
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