This was originally posted on September 23, 2013
September 25, 2013 is the second anniversary of the death of environmental, peace, justice, and democracy advocate and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Muta Maathai.
Wangari Muta was born in 1940 in a round hut in rural tribal Kenya. Wangari’s tribe considered the fig tree to be holy, and she was taught that one is never to cut a fig tree down or to use its branches for firewood. Wangari spent many happy childhood hours in the shade of a fig tree that grew by a nearby stream. Fig trees play an important role in the ecological system of the Rift Valley of Kenya. Their roots penetrate the hard rock surface of the mountains to find underground water, thus opening channels where the water flows upward to fill streams and rivers.
As an adult Maathai learned that the fig tree she played under had been cut down by a settler with the result that the river had dried up. This was happening all over Kenya on a massive scale to make room for cash crop plantations. Rivers were silting up and widespread erosion threatened to turn the fertile Rift Valley into a desert. Crops were failing, animals were starving, there was no wood for cooking fires, and rural people were suffering.
Maathai says that as she was thinking about this problem “It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees?’ … This is how the Green Belt Movement began.” Since Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, more than 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya and over 30,000 women have been trained. The Green Belt Movement is now international and continues to plant trees around the world.
For Maathai this movement was never only about planting trees. Maathai soon found that the men she hired squandered the money she gave them, while women had the traditional knowledge of nurturing food crops that made them the ideal caretakers for tree seedlings. The Green Belt Movement also understood that it could not just plant trees, but must also educate the people about the importance of preserving forests.
Maathai realized that forests were being destroyed because politicians were not listening to the people and not safeguarding Kenya’ s natural resources, but rather were acting out of their own short term interests. Maathai and her co-workers were jailed numerous times while attempting to inform the public about environmental threats. Maathai ran for office more than once and founded the Mazingira (Environmental) Green Party of Kenya which promotes the values of justice, sustainability, peace, and democracy.
Maathai’s memoir Unbowed is a moving testimony to the power of individuals and groups to change the world—but only if we “stand up” for what we believe in. Reflecting on the Green Belt Movement, Maathai wrote: “it seems no coincidence that it was nurtured during the time the global women’s movement was taking off.” Maathai was educated in Kenya when few women were, and she was continually vilified for not staying in her “traditional place.” She was empowered and aided by the nuns who educated her and later by the women she met through UN conferences on women.
Like many of their generation, Maathai’s parents converted to Christianity. Christian missionaries taught traditional peoples that God did not reside in nature, but rather in a place outside it. While Wangari was growing up, people still had a sense of the sacredness of nature, though this was rapidly being lost in her lifetime. Maathai writes that for traditional Kenyans, “Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or the Place of Brightness, and the second-highest peak in Africa, was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. … As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing.”
Maathai stated that the myths of her Kikuyu tribe indicate that they were once matrilineal—passing land and identity through the female clan. I wondered if Mount Kenya had once been personified as female, as the Mountain Mother, the Source of Life. Though Maathai refers to the mountain as God or the place of God in the above quote, a sense of the Mount Kenya’s maternal presence and power comes through when Maathai describes her feelings on learning she had received the Nobel Peace Prize.
“I faced Mt. Kenya, the source of inspiration for me as well as for generations of people before me, I reflected on how appropriate it was that I should be at this place at this time and celebrating the news facing this mountain. The mountain is known to be rather shy, the summit often cloaked by a veil of clouds. It was hidden that day. Although around me the sun was bright and strong, the mountain was hiding. As I searched for her with my eyes and heart, I recalled the many times I have worried whether she will survive the harm we are doing to her. As I continued to search for her, I believed the mountain was celebrating with me: The Nobel Committee had also heard the voice of nature, and in a very special way. As I gazed at her, I felt the mountain too was probably weeping with joy, and hiding her tears behind a veil of white clouds. At that moment I felt I stood on sacred ground.”
Wangari Muta Maathai is no longer with us. It is our turn. The Mountain is waiting for us.