Wangari Maathai: The passing away of an environmental legend

By Bhavani Prakash

“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.”

-Wangari Maathai (April 1 1940 – 25 September 2011)

It was with immense sadness that we heard of Wangari Maathai’s demise after a long battle with cancer.

She was a leading environmental activist and became renowned the world over as an advocate for tree planting and a champion for social justice and human rights. She became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  As founder of the The Green Belt Movement in 1977 which focuses on environmental conservation and community development, she worked relentlessly for the upliftment of women by teaching them their deep relationship with the environment.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940 in the village of Ihithe in the Central Highlands of Kenya. She graduated in the University of Pittsburgh as a biologist and returned to Kenya to be the first woman in east and central Africa to get a Ph.D.

While working with African rural women in the 1970s, she learnt first hand about their deteriorating environmental and social conditions, especially their lack of firewood and clean drinking water.  She encouraged them to plant trees, an initiative that would at once solve multiple problems of managing watersheds, improving soil, providing access to firewood and fodder for livestock and making women self-sufficient.

Maathai soon realised that these environmental and social issues were entrenched in the larger political context of corruption and erosion of community values.  She and other pro-democracy advocates fought valiantly with the dictatorial regime of Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi, who repeatedly harassed her and got her jailed. In December 2002, she was elected Member of Parliament in the country’s first ever democratic elections and later become the Minister of Environment. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Much has been written about her and the numerous awards and honours she has been bestowed with, including her various involvements such as the United Nations Environment Program’s The Billion Tree Campaign, the target for which is now 14 billion trees.

I’d like to mention one important campaign in 1989 by Wangari Maathai against the construction of a 60 story skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park situated in downtown Nairobi, which is referenced here in the beautiful poem below.  It has been written by a young East African poet, Lorot Salem, on the occasion of  International Women’s Day on 8th March 2011.

You need no introduction, Mama
As lawyers will say, ” We take judicial notice”
For you are not only a household-name in Kenya
But also as far as Tajikistan.

I was at Uhuru Park the other day
And as I lay on green grass and stared at the blue skies
A nudging thought ate my mind:
What if your hair hadn’t been pulled?
What if you hadn’t been whipped and tear-gassed?
What if you hadn’t put your life on the line?

Hongera Mama Wangari Maathai
Thank you for that heroic act.

Oft-times I see you on telly
That broad smile, that motherly head-gear
You talking about our trees, our rivers
And our grandchidren
In you, I don’t see a person
Instead I see a generation of children unborn
In you, I don’t see Kenya
Instead I see our world and its beauty

Sadly, too, Mama
Behind you on the telly I see a shadow
Of an axe felling a forest,  Highrise building on a wet area
Behind you I see a plume of Greenhouse Gases
Behind you I see an Enviro-assassin, most devious
Most vile

But again, Mama, hongera
For fighting for Uhuru Park:
For in that one single act
We escape the concrete jungle
And if Nature be for us, we are on the right path.

In deed, you need no introduction
As the Nairobi morning sun kisses Uhuru Park
As the birds chirp, tired souls sleep on grass
As children row their midget boats
As the tranquility tiptoes to numbed minds
Somehow, your name is immortalized
Hongera Mama Wangari Maathai.

Hongera– A Kiswahili word for thank you, congratulations.
Mama– A Kiswahili word for mum, it is a respected title for a mother.

by Lorot Salem, Echoes of the Hill

Hongera Mama, Wangari Maathai, you will be deeply missed.  We shall never forget your words,
I will be a hummingbird. I will always do my best.”

Video link here

And we hope that your message and work will be carried on by a new generation of enviornmental champions.


Further links you may be interested in:

1. Trailer of Taking Root, A movie on the vision of Wangari Maathai

Video link here

2.  Planting Ideas Action Guide to spread the Green Belt Movement

3.  Books by Wangari Maathai:

a. The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (2003),

b.  Unbowed (2006),

c. The Challenge for Africa (2008),

d. Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World(2010).

4.  CNN Video: Wangari Maathai Revealed


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Posted by on Sep 26 2011. Filed under Animations and Movies, Communities and Governance, Sustainable Development. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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  1. [...] Wangari Maathai: The passing away of an environmental legend | EcoWalktheTalk. This entry was posted in Public Pedagogy, Public Philosophizing, Science and technology [...]

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