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“Harambee is my favourite expression. It means ‘let’s pull together’"
KENYA, 1940

She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She is dynamic and self-confident and she is the mother of three children. Not only is she  the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (Nadine Gordimer of South Africa won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1991), but she was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree as well as a deanship from the University of Nairobi. She founded The Green Belt Movement. In her country they call her “the tree woman”.

“Peace on earth depends on our ability to care for our environment. Maathai stands at the forefront of the fight to promote social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and Africa that will also be ecologically practical”, stated the committee which awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee added, “She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally.”

Wangari Maathai received the news while working near Mount Kenya, her favourite place, and she began to cry as she thought of those thousands of women in her country who have begun their march towards obtaining a better life.

Wangari studied in her village at a school run by missionary nuns, and years later, thanks to a scholarship granted by the Catholic bishop of Nyeri, she moved to the United States where she earned a degree in Biology from the University of Kansas. Subsequently, she earned a Master’s degree in Pittsburg and continued her studies in Germany. This was a unique privilege for her, taking into account that she was born in the 1940s, in a village of the kikuyu ethnic group with no electricity or running water. Wangari had a very difficult childhood and she is reminded of its difficulty when she recalls the violence that her polygamist father used against his wives.

When she returned to Kenya she decided to focus her work on the environment, and through this, she became involved in the fight against poverty and hunger and for the improvement of the situation of women.

“I began working as a scientist concentrating on research of problems in the food industry. I began studying the life cycle of a parasite that was transmitted through ticks and whilst I was collecting samples I noticed that the rivers were full of slime and mud. I remembered that the rivers weren’t like this when I was a child. Because of all the mud, there was very little grass and what little there was lacked the necessary nutrients. The land wasn’t fulfilling its purpose. These women had no wood for fuel or fencing, no fodder for their livestock, no water to cook with or to drink, and not enough food for themselves and their families. It then became clear to me that the greatest threat was environmental degradation. Suddenly, everything made sense,” reflected Wangari a short time after returning to her homeland.

“If you go to the rural areas of Africa you will find that it is the women who farm the land, who fetch the water, who look after the children and the elderly. For that reason, I found it logical to work with them” Wangari reasons. “My first idea was to plant trees to provide firewood, fruits and building materials for their houses.  But what happened,” she continues explaining, “was that the needs of the women were, in reality, symptoms of other problems such as deforestation or the women’s own personal situation. This way, we began to study in more depth issues such as environmental degradation, malnutrition and diseases. I realized that, although they seem to be distinct problems, they are in fact very connected.”

Those discoveries and her great willpower, lead her to found The Green Belt Movement in 1977. Women involved in this movement have already planted more than 30 million trees in Kenya. Many other countries have also wanted to follow this initiative, with more or less luck.

Wangari was married in the seventies, and her marriage lasted ten years until her husband filed for divorce on the grounds that “she was too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”. The judge completely agreed with her husband. Therefore, she became the sole person responsible for the education of her three children.

This tireless fighter likes to recall the words of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee’s spokesperson when he solemnly stated in 2006 that “we are all witness to how deforestation and the loss of our forests have led to desertification in Africa and have threatened many other regions of the world – including Europe.” And he added: “through education, family planning, nutrition and the fight against corruption, the Green Belt Movement has paved the way for development at the grass-roots level. We believe that Maathai is a powerful voice that speaks on behalf of the most valuable forces in Africa to promote peace and better living conditions on that continent.” Perhaps this is what led her to be appointed Assistant Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in the first democratic government in Kenya. She was elected to parliament with 98% of the votes in the first free elections in her country and there she started her work with great hope. Her aim was to influence from within the government the ideals she had and to draw up laws which would leave a better country for her children. However, her experience in politics left her feeling frustrated and so she decided to return to her work at the Green Belt Movement.

Wangari has had to face on many occasions, what she calls “concrete jungles,” or politicians who prefer to illegally build huge hotels rather than consider providing food for the citizens of the area. These people are commonly known as “land thieves” in Kenya.

Wangari’s movement has also proven that neither a lot of money nor technology is required to plant trees. It is sufficient simple to mobilize the citizens, in this case, the women. “I asked them,” remembers Wangari, “what problems do you have? And their answer was: ‘we are poor, we suffer from many diseases and malnutrition, we are hungry, we are paid very little for our products, we have no water.’ And so I insisted, ‘Where do you think all these problems come from?’ Without hardly any hesitation at all they blamed the government, but I told them that the government was not the only one to blame.  I told them that they of course had to demand a better government, but I also told them, ‘You must realiza that you have land but you don’t look after it. You allow soil erosion to continue. You are hungry but you don’t grow food. You have chosen exotic crops which don’t grow well on your land and which are not very nutritious. Therefore, you must do something.” And to the cry of harambee, which means ‘let’s all pull together’ the action began.

Her work is not only carried out in Kenya. In 2005, the ten heads of state of the Congo Basin countries offered her the position of Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Initiative. Right from the start she began to work for the protection of this African region where there are numerous coal mines.