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  Middle East & Africa
Wangari Maathai: Audacious Woman of Her Time
By Benson Kamary
Associate Editor & Writer
Wangari Maathai: Audacious Woman of Her Time

Sometime in January, 1999, I came face to face with quite a frightening sight in Nairobi. I was just about to cross the road when a speeding anti-riot police truck swerved past followed by a jeep full of policemen with wooden clubs. Panic raged high prompting women to grab their children and flee. Some shops were shut instantaneously. Were it not for my school uniform, a distinctive red shirt and blue pair of shorts, I would not have been allowed into a matatu, public transport van, heading East. I was a high school sophomore.

Inside the van grape vine was churning from every other tongue but the theme was, “Wangari was in the forest planting trees”. You see, I knew Wangari Maathai from my Boy Scout training on environmental conservation, but it took me longer to comprehend why one can be clobbered for planting trees. The television’s chilling images later in the evening and newspaper pictures the following morning are still fresh in my memory – unsettling.

This woman never quit. Sooner than later Wangari Maathai was back in the forest or Uhuru park either attempting to plant trees or dodging tear gas from the authorities. Today Uhuru Park is scenic and Karura Forest where she was beaten by hired the guards as the police watched, is mostly saved from the hands of land grabbers.

The woman was also unbowed; a fitting title she gave to her biography published in 2006. To the young people, Wangari Maathai became a symbol of courage, endurance and change. Her love for trees went beyond international activism. She chose a path which many male with more resources and influence shied from. She was despised as a threat to the ruling elite. Others in the arena said she had worms in her brains. But the woman of action was in fact unbowed even amid arrests, beatings, and death threats. He kept planting thousands of trees and fighting for fellow women facing similar discrimination. She folded her sleeves, knelt on the grimy ground, soiled her hands and did what she believed sustained life and cultivated peace.

Wangari Maathai understood how the earth sustains life both as a biologist and from her experience in Kenya's central highlands where she grew up on nourishing food from the rich soil. She once said how much she misses when Kenya was "lush, green, fertile" land of plenty. That was long before deforestation devourers came in.

In Politics Wangari Maathai spoke her mind even when she rubbed the political elite the wrong way. She pioneered the call for political freedom setting a stage for the Kenya’s second generation liberators. It mattered less that her path attracted more political maltreatment by the powers that were. Hers was a rare determination.

Upon founding Green Belt Movement in 1977, Wangari Maathai mobilized thousands of women to plant trees in an effort to restore the Kenya’s indigenous forests. Since the county’s environmental degradation was fundamentally due to the policies of a corrupt individuals in the government, Wangari Maathai used Green Belt Movement as a vehicle to call for democratic space in Kenya. She once explained that, “As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance.”

Unlike many leaders of her time, majority of whom were avaricious for power or simply economic racialists who saw everything through the ‘money glasses’, Wangai Maathai tied political leadership and environmental protection to health, justice, and peace. With a broader worldview, she saw and responded to what many leaders gave a blind eye.

She was enthusiastically concerned of the women plight convincing them that their empowerment would awaken prosperity right from within their families. She said: “Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family." While advocating for the release of women political prisoners, Wangari Maathai is said to have led her fellow women in stripping naked at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park as a show of disgust to the frustrating insatiable authorities. A woman stripping naked is an act of curse in the African tradition. Wangari Maathai did whatever she could to save the environment.

In her youth, she became a beneficiary of the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa, a program spearheaded by politician Tom Mboya and Senator J. F. Kennedy in which hundreds of African students were taken to study in the US in 1960s. Notably she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to attained doctorate and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

In her death, the world will miss a woman of who added color to the earth. Even her dressing was decently colorful. Hear what she said about her outfit: "When you are an African woman, a politician’s wife, there was a particular way you behaved in public. I learnt for example that during campaigns, a woman should not wear a miniskirt, or a dress that might get blown by wind."

In a few decades, advised Wangari Maathai, the relationship between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace. She the challenged us to plant trees take care of it because there are so many enemies of trees. It takes the courageous to do it, and this is why… "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!"

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Benson Kamary, professor of Tongmyong University in Pusan, serves as an Associate Editor & Writer for The Seoul Times. Based in Busan, South Korea, the Kenyan professor also serves as chairman of Kenya Community in Korea (KCK). He can be reached at






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