By Carole Copeland Thomas
See Video Clip of Wangari Maathia At The Bottom Of This Blog
One of the world’s great environmental activists died last week, losing a hard fought battle against cancer. Her health ended her life, but her many victories and brutal struggles for women’s rights, environmental rights, democracy and peace will live long into the annals of history.
Green Movement, Women’s Rights, and Peace
Dr. Wangari Maathai, university professor turned Green Movement advocate was a champion for women and the people of Kenya. Life was not easy for her as she faced opposition from some of the most powerful men in Kenya. From the 1970s until her health failed her last week, her leadership in the National Council of Women of Kenya and the Green Belt Movement attracted the attention of civic engagement leaders around the world.
She succeeded by planting thousands of trees throughout the East African landscape.
Because of her stubborn determination, frequent arrests, and death threats, Dr. Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and first environmentalist to win this coveted award.
Struggles Made Her Stronger
When I first heard her name in 2004, I thought it odd that a woman who organized other women to plant trees to rejuvenate the hills and farmlands of Kenya would win this highly prized award. Then I read more about her life and admired and respected her courage and bravery. A bitter divorce as her accomplishments eclipsed her husband’s. Financial struggles as money dried up when she wouldn’t toe the line. Political and tribal conflict when this Kikuyu woman went up against the nation’s president, Danial arap Moi, who happened to be a member of the Kalenjin tribe (they are frequent winners of marathons held around the world). Attacks and arrests when she opposed a multimillion dollar construction pet project of President Moi. She ultimately won when the international funding of the Uhuru Park construction project was cancelled by foreign investors.
Wangari Maathai said this about the fight to save this important strip of land inside the city of Nairobi:
“When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.”
Education Made Her Smarter
Timing was right for educating Wangari Maathai. After receiving her primary and secondary education in Kenya shortly before its independence, she was part of the educational enlightenment period of African history in 1959-1963 when American funding by celebrities and politicians including Harry Belefonte and John F. Kennedy provided university scholarships for gifted students to travel to America. Wangari Maathai’s scholarship landed her at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchinson, Kansas. She was sent to Kansas. Fellow Kenyan Barack Obama, Sr. was sent to the University of Hawaii with his scholarship.
After graduating from college, she continued her education, and received her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh. It was there that she studied the strategic tactics of local environmentalists fighting against air pollution. Maathai continued with her doctoral education at The University Giessen (Germany), The University of Munich (Germany). She completed her Ph.D. in Veterinary Anatomy in 1971 from the University College of Nairobi. (Know known as the University of Nairobi, where I was privileged to speak in 2007.) She became the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D.
All of her educational pursuits were accomplished while she was still a young married woman and mother of three.
Mixed Bag: Her Political Career
She ran for political office several times. Probably lost more times than she won. And sentiments throughout Kenya about her political career were mixed. Perhaps she felt that serving in the government was a way to bring her ideas and vision for a greener Kenya to light.
When I took my first trip to Kenya in 2005, met the people, learned about the 40+ tribes, ate the food, saw the rich farmland, learned more about their economic and political struggles, I began to understand more about the power of Dr. Maathai’s human rights struggle. She beat the odds, took on the system, and cobbled together an army of women armed only with seedlings and a dream. Amazingly bold and audacious.
Meeting Wangari Maathai
The highlight for me was meeting Wangari Maathai in 2006 when she accepted the invitation of Ambassador Charles Stith to speak at Boston University’s African Presidential Archives and Research Center. She was insightful, friendly and very approachable. Members of the Kenya Sistahs (www.kenyasistahs.org), the humanitarian group that I co-founded took photos with Dr. Maathai. Dozens of Africans jammed the hallway to meet her, touch her and become inspired by her presence. Her charisma was uncanny. Her commitment to the environment and humanity unmistakable.
Remembering Her Legacy
It’s sad to realize that she is gone, only to be remembered by the great work she did for so many. Wangari Maathai was a focused fighter, a champion for the right causes that positively benefitted the significant and the voiceless alike. I pay tribute to her, and hold her up as an example of what can happen when ONE visionary person mixes determination and courage into a potent mixture that yields a net positive impact on our society.
God Bless Her Soul. May She Rest In Peace.
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Carole Copeland Thomas is a 27 year speaker, trainer and consultant specializing in global diversity, empowerment, multiculturalism and leadership issues.