The Legacy of Wangari Maathai, the Social Activist

When I was a young person, I grew up in a land that was green, a land that was very pure, a land that was clean. And I remember going to a small stream very close to our homestead to fetch water and bring it to my mother. We used to drink that water straight from the river. I had this fascination with what I saw in the river. Sometimes I would see literally thousands of what looked like glass beads. I would put my little fingers around them in the hope that I would pick them and put them around my neck. But every time I tried to pick them, they disappeared. I would be there literally for hours desperately trying to pick these beads, without success. Weeks later I would come back, and there would be these thousands of little tadpoles. They are beautiful, pitch black, and in that water they would be energetically flying around and I would try to get them. You can’t hold them, they are wiggling and they are very slippery. They eventually disappeared and then the frogs came. I never realized that the glass beads were jelly sacks of eggs or understood the three stages of frogs until I went to college and learned biology. Once I had all this knowledge about the miracle of science I came home from college to discover that the creek had dried up and my homeland was suffering much environmental damage. (By Professor Wangari Maathai published in Grist Magazine 15 Feb 2005)

Milicent Agutu

A social Activist

Social Activists are persons who fight/fought against injustices done to the people, by leading people in taking action for their own social transformation or by making people to be protagonists of their own change. Wangari Maathai was one of the Kenyan Social and Environmentalist Activist, founder of the Green Belt Movement, first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD. and first African Woman to win the Laureate Nobel Peace Prize.

This analysis is to explore the real names of the activist, injustices fought against, actions done to fight injustices, structures, institutions, organizations set up by her, advocacy undertaken to change the social systems and structure, the obstacles she faced and from whom, what were the results in her lifestyle and the results today.

Professor Wangari Maathai – was born in Nyeri, Kenya (East Africa) in 1940. She was the 1st African woman to receive a PhD. in Central and Eastern Africa and the 1st African woman to win the Laureate Nobel Peace Prize besides winning several other awards for her social activism, launching several campaigns, establishing several movements and serving on Boards of several organizations. She is known for her persistent environmental conservation, human right and democracy struggle.

In the fight for human rights, she took part in hunger strike in a corner at Uhuru Park (Freedom Corner), to pressurize the government to release political prisoner, however the police forcibly removed the protestors, the protest continued until all prisoners were released in 1993. When Wangari took part in hunger strike, the government audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down.

In 1997 Professor Wangari campaigned for equal benefits for women on the staff of the University which went as far as attempting to turn the academic staff association into a union in order to negotiate benefits, the court denied this bid but many of her demands were later met.  She received the woman of the world award in 1989, enjoyed leadership as she served in Boards of several organizations both nationally and internationally i.e. she was elected the UN Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament and was the founder and director of Green Belt Movement.

In Environmental arena Wangari founded the Envirocare Ltd to limit the rising unemployment, while restoring environment and providing job, she also started the business of trees where she involved the ordinary people at the Karura Forest and also paid them per each tree seedling. In 1988 Wangari campaigned for the registration of voters for election and pressed for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. In 1998 she protested against government privatization of public land in Karura Forest to give to political supporters. She led a group of women and they planted trees which later on the 16/8/1998 made President Moi to announce the banning of allocation of public land. Professor Wangari also sought for an injunction in the Kenya high court to halt the construction (60 – stony Kenya Times Media Trust Complex) on 15th November 1989 by the government at Uhuru Park. This led foreigners to cancel the project in January 1990. Government was against many of the stances the movement taught pertaining to rights and democracy and being restricted to concentrate only on environment, Government too invoked the colonial-era law of prohibiting groups or more than 9 people meeting without attaining license from the government.

When she protested against the grabbing of Uhuru Park to contract a 60 – story, Kenya Times Media Trust Complex, the government forced her to vacate her office and the Green Belt Movement and she was forced to move into her house, where they later broke in and took her to the jail for 3 days and was later released on bail. She was also called names and with other pro-democracy activists were targeted for assassination. Green Belt Movement was called a bogus organization and its members, a bunch of divorcees. Also when she protested in 1998 against privatization of public land in Karura Forest, which was to be located to political supporters, Wangari, four Members of Parliament, Journalists and the German environmental student   protests, they were attacked and injured.

Her struggle to protect the environment made her known nationally and internationally and she received several awards both nationally and internationally i.e. The 2004 Laureate Nobel Peace, The conservation scientist award and served in President Kibaki’s government as an Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and Wildlife and till death served the Eminent Advisory Board of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA). In June 1997, she was elected by Earth Times as one of the 100 persons in the world who made a difference in the Environment arena. Through Wangari’s activism, Uhuru Park was not grabbed and as such there is some natural beauty in the town centre where a thousand families are formed everyday and new lovers find a place to prepare for future plighting of troth. There is space for public activities as crusades are conducted there, government defense teams practice there, and the freedom corner reserved too.

The Karura Forest was protected, thus led to the establishment of Envirocare Ltd, which provided environmental restoration, jobs for unemployed, water catchment area. This later also led to the finding of the Green Belt Movement which focused on planting trees, environmental conservation, human rights which contributed much to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Politically Professor Wangari started the movement for free and fair election, during the multiparty election in 1992 she formed a middle ground group in effort to unite the opposition, which she later became the chair person, this movement promoted free and fair elections. During tribal clashes she travelled with friends and media to encourage people to cease fighting and with Green Belt Movement, “Planted trees of peace” that made peace prevail in the area. She became the Chairperson for the Movement of free and fair elections formed in 1992, during the multi-party elections.

 Final Remarks

From the analysis of Professor Wangari’s life as an activist, it simplifies what is required of a social activist and the challenges faced in activism. Where as the main requirements are Love for the creation, Diagnostic abilities (ability to sense/identify problems and offering solutions), Conceptual abilities (turning reality into model), Technical abilities (use of the modern technologies). These main requirements could be broken further to resource mobilization, research abilities, good implementation plans, leadership skills and techniques, training ability, multi tasking abilities, cost and expense control, activities budgeting. While for one to handle the challenge in activism, it must be a call and sacrifice (one must be ready to die for others). Activism needs the application of the pastoral cycle effectively at all its stages (insertion, social analysis, theological reflection and action).

Curriculum to Teach about Wangari Maathai


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