#SheWhoShines 7. Wangari Muta Maathai - The Woman Who Has Planted Over 35 Million Trees

'She was born on the floor of a mud hut with no water or electricity in the middle of rural Kenya, in the place where human beings took their first steps. There was no money but there was at least lush green rainforest and cool, clear drinking water. But Maathai watched as the life-preserving landscape of her childhood was hacked down. The forests were felled, the soils dried up, and the rivers died, so a corrupt and distant clique could profit. She started a movement to begin to make the land green again – and in the process she went to prison, nearly died, toppled a dictator, transformed how African women saw themselves, and won a Nobel Prize.' - http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/can-one-woman-save-africa-1794103.html

Wangari (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011), an environmental and political activist, was the first woman in East & Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She was also the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace". Born into a poor family, her mother insisted that she receive education, an opportunity that not many girls had at that time. She flourished and was offered a place at a boarding school run by Irish nuns. When she was 13, the British occupation broke out, and around 100,000 Kenyans were killed. Her mother was ordered to live in a camp, surrounded by trenches. Wangari's mother and father didn't see each other for 7 years.  "I carried messages between them. That's how I ended up imprisoned for the first time. The conditions were horrible – designed to break people's spirits and self-confidence and instill sufficient fear that they would abandon their struggle." During this time, the British destroyed vast areas of forest to make room for plantations where tea was to be grown for export.

After Kenyan politicians such as Tom Mboya proposed to make education in Western nationals available to promising students, John F Kennedy agreed to initiate a program: the 'Kennedy Airlift'. Wangari was one of around 300 Kenyans selected to study in the US, in 1960. After receiving her bachelor of Science degree in 1964, Wangari studied at the University of Pittsburgh for a Master's in Biology. In 1969, after spending some years working as a research assistant and also pursuing a doctorate at the University of Giessen in Germany, she returned to Nairobi to continue her studies. That year she married Mwangi Mathai and also had her first son. In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD, her doctorate being in veterinary anatomy.

During Wangari's time lecturing at the Nairobi university, where she became the first woman appointed to chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and associate professor, she also campaigned for equal benefits for women - The courts denied her bid, but many of her demands of equal benefits were met.

Wangari met, and married, a young Kenyan politician named Mwangi Maathai.  She got involved in his campaign to get a seat in parliament, and was thrilled when he won.  "I said – what are we going to do now to get jobs for all the people we promised help for? He just said – oh, that was the campaign. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. He didn't intend to do anything."

Skipping forward to 1976, by which point Wangari was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya, she introduced the concept of tree planting within the community. Wangari had grown up around lush forests and escaped into the natural landscapes, having a fascination with how the trees absorb water and are filled with life. One particular tree, a fig tree, her mother told her, was sacred and life-giving - She went back, many years later, to find it had been cut down. These early experiences shaped her love for the natural world, and she would fight to protect it.  Wangari continued to work on the tree-planting idea, and it developed into the Green Belt Movement, the main focus being poverty reduction and environmental conservation, all through tree planting.

After a lengthy separation from her husband, he filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi Maathai, said she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control." (which reminds me of a brilliant quote by Clarissa Estes - "If you have yet to be called an incorrigible, defiant woman, don't worry, there's still time.") Her husband publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, blaming this as the cause of his high blood pressure! The judge ruled in his favour, and later in an interview, Wangari referred to the judge as 'either incompetent or corrupt.' This led to the judge charging her with contempt of court, sentencing her to 6 months in prison.

"With every court proceeding, I felt stripped naked before my children, my family and friends. It was a cruel, cruel punishment. ...I was being turned into a sacrificial lamb. Anybody who had a grudge against modern, educated and independent women was being given an opportunity to spit on me. I decided to hold my head high, put my shoulders back, and suffer with dignity: I would give every woman and girl reasons to be proud and never regret being educated, successful, and talented."

After coming out of prison, she found herself at 41 years old, with no job and no money. She returned to the Green Belt Movement that she had created years before, deciding to urge women to plant forests, with the aim of seeing a new green belt throughout Kenya, nurtured by women. One day, she heard that the dictator of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi, wanted to build luxury apartments and a golden statue of himself over Uhuru Park - The only green space in Nairobi. She did something that was not done in Kenya, and that shocked many people: Protested. She protested with determination and perseverance, only to be charged with treason and sent to prison. After international protests she was released and immediately started protesting again. After 3 years of campaigning - death threats and all - Moi finally dropped the project. After this, her clash with Moi wasn't over. Wangari was contacted by mothers whose sons had 'disappeared' into the prison system for opposing the regime. She traveled to Nairobi with the mothers, and bravely staged another protest, and by the 3rd day thousands had joined them, with men telling stories of how they suffered torture by the police. Things seemed to be looking up, until the police came with batons and tear gas - They beat the women so bloody that Wangari signed her name at the police station with her own blood. They next day, in solidarity, they returned to protest, and won. Moi relented for a 2nd time. The 3rd time they would cross paths was in 1999, when Moi wanted to destroy Karura Forest. Wangari was there in protest, opposite soldiers with machine guns. She held a small plant in her arms. While her group tried to plant trees, she was beaten, and nearly died. But once again, she won. In that last face off between Wangari and Moi, his soldiers carried death, whilst she carried life.


Her Green Belt Movement led to the foundation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. 45 representatives from 15 African countries traveled to Kenya to learn how to set up similar programs. The movement aimed to combat deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger. The Green Belt Movement and Wangari's work led to her being honored with various awards. She died in 2011 following complications from ovarian cancer.

Professor Wangari Muta Maathai is another brilliant woman who has contributed so much in order to make the world a better, brighter place. In 2009, as recognition of her deep commitment to the environment, the United Nations named her a UN Messenger of Peace, with focus on the environment.

These are some of her other achievements and contributions:
Wangari Muta Maathai was:
- the first president of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council
- appointed a goodwill ambassador for an initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem
- the spearhead of the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign
- a founder of the Nobel Women's Initiative
-one of Time Magazines '100 Most Influential People in the World' in 2005.

Here you can learn more about Wangari, as well as see a list of her achievements: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography
 

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Stay tuned for the stories of just 3 more incredible women, and at the end of this week (12.02.16) we'll be opening the votes to find out whose story you find the most inspiring.

The 3 women with the highest amount of votes will have their names beautifully etched on our Limited Edition white candles for International Women's Day. 

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