Bhaskar Parichha

With the death of Wangari Muta Maathai in 2011 the world indisputably lost a great environmentalist. Born in Nyeri, Kenya, in 1940 and died in Nairobi, she founded the Green Belt Movement, which, through networks of rural women, has planted over 30 million trees across Kenya since 1977.

Africa’s future has been the subject of fierce debate, with the international media full of warnings about environmental and economic collapse. True, development workers continue to create supposed solutions to the problems they see, yet with little effect and much controversy. While these outsiders haggle over projections and prophecies, Africans have been working on a variety of small, grassroots projects, which they believe, might change the course of their future. The Green Belt movement is one such project which has been creating and recreating history.

It is so easy, in the modern world, to feel disconnected from the physical earth. Despite dire warnings and escalating concern over the state of our planet, many people feel out of touch with the natural world. But, the Green Belt organization, which has planted millions of trees throughout East Africa in order to provide sources of fuel, food and a way to stop soil erosion and environmental degradation, is one example of an indigenous movement working to influence Africa’s future. Many of its workers are women. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women that soon spread across Africa. She spent decades working with the Movement to help women in rural Kenya plant—and sustain—millions of trees.

Green Belt Movement

With their hands in the dirt, these women found themselves empowered and “at home” in a way they never did before. Maathai wanted to impart that feeling to everyone, and believed that the key lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service.

While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai drew inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate tikkun olam (“repair the world”) and renewing the Japanese term mottainai (“don’t waste”). Through rededication to these values, she believed Kenyan women might finally bring about healing for themselves and the earth.

Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country.

The Green Belt Movement became the inspiring story of people working at the grassroots level to improve their environment and their country. Their story offered ideas about a new and hopeful future for Africa and the rest of the world.

Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004

Besides being a native writer, Wangari Maathai was also a parliamentarian. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s Parliament in the first free elections in a generation, and in 2003, she was appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. However, worldwide recognition came her way when she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004. In 2009, she was appointed a United Nations Messenger of Peace by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The Nobel Peace Prize laureate recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage in her autobiography Unbowed: A Memoir.

Autobiography Unbowed: A Memoir

Her trailblazing story illustrates how African women are stepping into prominent leadership roles throughout the continent. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come.

(The author Bhaskar Parichha is a Bhubaneswar based senior journalist and columnist. Views are personal)

Tags: #WangariMutaMaathai #GreenBeltMovement #Unbowed #NobelPeacePrize #NaturalResources #environment