- Kenya's Green
- by Caroline Kihato
- from the Mail &
- 9/1/2003 7:07:00 AM
- Wangari Maathai evokes different
reactions in different people. Environmentalists around the world
have hailed her conservation work, recognising it with several
awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize &endash; the
equivalent of the Nobel Prize for environmentalists.
- For rural women in Kenya, she has
been a liberator. Through her NGO, called the Green Belt Movement,
she has facilitated their economic and social empowerment where
their own elected leaders have usually failed them.
- Maathai's friends share admiration
for her, but also her pain. Under the regime of former Kenyan
president Daniel arap Moi, she suffered police beatings and
imprisonment. Her political activism forced her to be separated
from her children, whom she sent overseas to ensure their safety.
Indeed, many mothers in Kenya can relate to this pain, as it is
not unusual for families to have one or all of their children
living in other countries in the hope of a better
- Moi called Maathai a "mad woman" and
"a threat to order and security in the country". MPs dismissed her
because she is divorced and threatened to mutilate her genitals so
that she would behave "as a woman should".
- You see, Wangari Maathai
transgressed sacrosanct political and cultural boundaries. Not
only did she dare to speak out against a corrupt political regime,
she was a woman speaking out against men, in a society where women
are expected to be subservient to their male
- Her transgressions do not stop
there. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to
obtain a doctorate, and the first woman professor at the
University of Nairobi.
- In 1977 she founded the Green Belt
Movement (GBM), whose objectives centre on the restoration of
Kenya's rapidly diminishing forests. The movement also seeks to
promote the empowerment of rural women through environmental
- Rural women's daily lives are
intricately intertwined with their environment. They are
responsible for fetching water and ensuring that there is enough
firewood in the home for cooking and heating. As forests diminish
because of the demands made on them to satisfy household needs, it
is women who walk further and further in search of the
increasingly scarce resources. By planting trees, the movement not
only ensures greater environmental sustainability, it also
alleviates the daily burdens faced by women by providing a close,
sustainable source of fuel.
- The GBM gets seedlings and
distributes them free of charge to rural communities. A network of
locally trained community members, often women, provides advice to
women farmers about planting, maintenance and nurturing of the
seed-lings. The GBM pays farmers for every tree that survives,
thus providing women with an independent source of
- What began as a small nursery in
Maathai's back yard has grown into about 3 000 nurseries giving
job opportunities to 80 000 people, most of them rural women.
About 20 million trees have been planted in Kenya, and nearly 80%
of these have survived. The movement has also grown beyond Kenya's
borders and now has local chapters in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi,
Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.
- In its first decade, the GBM worked
in relative harmony with the government. It was housed in
government-owned offices and worked closely with the Ministry of
Forestry, which initially provided seedlings free of
- The first clash with the state came
in 1989, when the government announced a plan which one minister
argued "would have a positive impact on the city's skyline". That
plan was to build a 60-storey building worth $200- million, graced
with a gigantic statue of Moi, in one of the last remaining open
spaces in Nairobi, called Uhuru (Freedom) Park.
- Maathai's was the lone voice that
dared to publicly confront Moi and his leadership. She argued that
not only would the multi-storey complex destroy one of the last
green spaces left in Nairobi, it would come at a great cost to
taxpayers. She argued that the money could be better spent on
education and eradicating poverty in the country.
- Uhuru (Independence) Park had
already been cordoned off in preparation for construction when, as
a result of pressure from local NGOs and the international
environmental community, the $200-million loan was withdrawn and
the project was halted. Unable to face the embarrassment of
defeat, the government left the construction fence around the park
until a year later, when they reluctantly tore it down and allowed
public access to the park again.
- Sadly, this victory came at a huge
cost to Wangari Maathai and the GBM. She was personally harassed
and assaulted by Moi's security forces. A concerted effort to
disgrace her character and integrity began in parliament and in
the government-owned media. Moi called her and her supporters
people with "insects in their heads" and "wondered why the women
of Kenya had not taken any steps to ostracise their 'wayward'
- Intimidation and harassment of GBM
members at the grassroots level followed, with threats directed at
the life and limb of people participating in the movement and
vandalism of GBM nurseries. The movement was kicked out of its
government-owned offices and, because of the state-sanctioned
threats, GBM's progress in Kenya slowed down
- But this failed to silence Maathai.
"Many men in positions of influence, including Daniel arap Moi,
ridiculed me," she recalls. "At one time MPs ridiculed me for
being a divorced woman. I felt that deep inside they were hoping
that, by calling into question my womanhood, I would be subdued.
Later they realised they were wrong."
- Maathai has been a significant
player in the political arena. She co-founded the Forum for the
Restoration of Democracy, a movement formed to bring about
democracy in Kenya. In 1997, she played an instrumental role in
trying to unite the opposition against the Kenya African National
Union, the ruling party.
- When she failed in her attempts, she
ran for president on an independent ticket. This move was met by
criticism from her friends and foes, and she was seen as a spoiler
because she further divided the opposition that she sought to
unite. She lost the election.
- In last year's historic elections in
Kenya, Maathai stood for a parliamentary seat, this time with a
united opposition under the National Rainbow Coalition banner,
which succeeded in ousting Moi. Notwithstanding attempts by her
political rivals to disrupt her rallies and hurl insults and abuse
at her, Maathai won her parliamentary seat with an overwhelming
- She is now Assistant Minister for
Environment and continues her struggle for the protection of the
environment. One of her first fights in her new position has been
with her own party, which is considering giving a licence to an
American investor to build a five-star hotel in Karura forest on
the outskirts of Nairobi. The investor allegedly bought the land
in a deal sealed by the previous government.
- At the time Earthyear went to press,
the Environment Ministry was embroiled in a debate about granting
a licence to a Canadian company to mine titanium on the Kenyan
coast. This was seen as the thin end of the wedge, with several
investors lining up to start mining gold and coal in various parts
of the country.
- The litmus test for the new
government must be how it chooses to engage with its critics and
deal with such contested issues. Maathai's ministry is also
involved in rooting out the corrupt practices of the previous
government, which illegally sold state forests and gave illegal
logging permits to individuals with connections to the Moi regime.
The way the new government deals with this kind of corruption will
allow Kenyans to determine whether real political transformation
- As a young Kenyan woman, Wangari
Maathai is my role model. She has opened cultural and political
doors that have traditionally been strict male domains. To some
extent she has made it easier for young Kenyan women &endash; we
have a precedent where she had none.
- A green, safe environment is not the
only gift she will bequeath to posterity. Her inspiration, hope
and fighting power will endure for generations to come.
- Caroline Kihato is a Kenyan
citizen and a senior lecturer at the school of architecture and
planning at the University of the Witwatersrand.