Wangari Maathawi – Whole Earth Hero

Posted by Whole Earth | 07.28.2019


Wangari Maathawi – Whole Earth Hero


This month’s Whole Earth hero is Wangari Maathawi (1940 – 2011), founder of the Green Belt Movement and winner of the Nobel Peace prize in 2004. She began life in the central highlands of rural Kenya as a member of the Kikuyu community.


She described the landscape of her childhood in her memoir Unbowed: “We lived in a land abundant with shrubs, creepers, ferns, and trees, like the mitundu, mikeu, and migumo, some of which produced berries and nuts. Because the rain fell regularly and reliably, clean drinking water was everywhere. There were large well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist.”* (page 4)



As a child she enjoyed working in her family’s fields, planting, cultivating and harvesting the crops. She was also tasked with collecting firewood for cooking. “When my mother told me to go and fetch firewood, she would warn me, ‘Don’t pick any dry wood out of the fig tree, or even around it.’ ‘Why? I would ask. “Because that is a tree of God,’ she’d reply. ‘We don’t use it. We don’t cut it. We don’t burn it.’ As a child of course, I had no idea what my mother was talking about, but I obeyed her.” * (pages 44-45)


Maathawi’s family saw to it that she received an education. She was an excellent student. When she completed high school, she was selected as a Kennedy scholar to attend college in the United States at what is now known as Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. She received an undergraduate degree in Biology and went on to earn a master’s in Biology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later studied in Germany and earned a doctorate from the University of Nairobi.


While lecturing and doing research at the University and raising a family, Maathawi became deeply involved in civic activities. Her work with the Environmental Liaison Centre, an organization that worked closely with the United Nations Environment Programme, and with the National Council of Women of Kenya, led to her growing comprehension of the environmental degradation that had overtaken much of the country.


Forests had been cut down and replanted with quick growing non-native trees for the timber industry. Many farmers had shifted from growing food crops to growing coffee and tea for cash crops. The shift to cash crops left women dependent on processed foods to feed their families. These foods required less fuel to cook as deforestation had greatly reduced the amount of firewood available for cooking. The net result was hunger, malnutrition and devastating erosion, soil loss and a shrinking supply of ground water.


Facing these problems directly, Maathawi wrote: “Now it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them. But I have always been interested in finding solutions. This is, I believe, a result of my education as well as my time in America: to think of what can be done rather than worrying about what cannot. I didn’t sit down and ask myself, ‘Now let me see, what shall I do?’ It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees?’ The trees would provide the wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods. They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goats. The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect the watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food. They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.”* (page 125)


Her goal was to combine traditional wisdom with modern land restoration practices. Her scientific knowledge helped her to understand her mother’s admonition to protect fig trees. “I later learned that there was a connection between the fig tree’s root system and the underground water reservoirs. The roots burrowed deep into the ground, breaking through the rocks beneath the surface soil and diving into the underground water table. The water traveled up along the roots until it hit a depression or weak place in the ground and gushed out as a spring. Indeed, wherever these trees stood, there were likely to be streams. The reverence the community had for the fig tree helped preserve the stream and the tadpoles that so captivated me [as a child]. The trees also held the soil together, reducing erosion and landslides. In such ways, without conscious or deliberate effort, these cultural and spiritual practices contributed to the conservation of biodiversity.”* (page 46)


The Green Belt Movement, as the tree planting program came to be known, started slowly. Trees would be planted, but without support from the community, the trees would not be watered and then would die. There were few native saplings available for planting, and there was general distrust for a movement led by and carried out for the most part by women. Community involvement in tree planting quickly became the norm and the trees survived. In response to a lack of native saplings, the Green Belt Movement began their own tree nurseries to supply the growing demand. Distrust of women in leadership positions continues to be a problem.


Since 1977, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. These trees have transformed the landscape and the lives of women who have worked together to grow and plant seedlings for the benefit of their communities. To learn more about Wangari Maathawi, we suggest her Unbowed – A Memoir, a visit to the Green Belt Movement website or watch this short video “Planting Hope” on Maathawi and her work. 


My Bag (0)