Article written by: Barbara Unmüßig, President; Heinrich Boell Stiftung / Fredrick Njau, Programme Coordinator, HBS Nairobi
Prof. Wangari Maathai would have celebrated her 80th Birthday today, April 1, 2020. Together with the global social and “green” movements, we remember one of our Heroines and pay tribute to our Green Icon, the Kenyan 2004 Nobel Peace Laureate and winner of the Petra-Kelly Prize of Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Born on April 1, 1940 in a small village in Nyeri, Central Kenya, Wangari was one of the first generation of young girls to go to school, thanks to her visionary mother. While Kenya struggled for independence, Wangari studied in Convent schools in Kenya and received a scholarship in 1960 to study at a university in the United States of America. The experiences with the civil rights movement in America deeply influenced her understanding of social justice and liberal freedoms. Very soon and back in Kenya, she would experience the limitations to her energy and ambitions - politically owing to the then authoritarian Kenyan government policies and secondly, because she did not conform to the traditional image of an African woman. Her social and political commitment would begin in the women's movement, in which she soon became a figure to identify with. At first, in Kenya she became chair of the National Council of Women in 1981, and later worldwide as a co-founder of the Women's Environment and Development Organization.
Prof. Wangari Maathai has been described as a hummingbird for Mother Earth, a wild leopard for human rights, an eagle for social justice and a dove for peace. She embodied social activism and knew no separation between her commitment to nature and social justice. While she planted millions of trees in Kenya with many of her fellow campaigners and fought for the conservation of natural forests, she always sowed peaceful cohesion and reconciliation. She exemplified the unity of democracy and social justice in a very practical and authentic manner. She was an Assistant Minister for Environment in Kenya but left the government when the then rainbow coalition failed to keep its promise of comprehensive constitutional reform.
Prof. Wangari Maathai is famous far beyond Kenya and Africa for her courage, bravery and for the energy she exuded. The list of honors in her name is long and impressive. In April of 2004 the Heinrich Böll Foundation awarded Prof. Wangari the Petra Kelly Prize and in the same year she became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The international community was often her invaluable shield that protected her against countless political threats in Kenya and attempts to intimidate her. During her lifetime, Prof. Wangari Maathai was defamed, attacked, imprisoned, sentenced and condemned by powerful local elites for her commitment to environmental, women's and human rights. Others ridiculed her on international stage, trying to belittle and ignore her vigorous warnings of global warming, green house gases and desertification. To date, the Green Belt Movement which she founded; and other social movements in Kenya actively preserve her legacy, as an ecologist, as a women's rights activist and a peacemaker. They revere, cherish and champion her legacy of being unbowed in effort to save the environment and roll back the devastating adverse effects of climate change.
In Kenya, Prof. Wangari Maathai is still very famous for her commitment to protect the last remaining public spaces such as Uhuru Park and Karura Forest in the urban areas of Nairobi. She often came into conflict with the government and law enforcers as she engaged in protecting these spaces. Today, Karura Forest is managed jointly by Friends of Karura Forest - a local initiative inspired by Wangari Maathai - and the Kenya Forest Service. In the 1990s, Wangari Maathai prevented a 60-story skyscraper from being built in Uhuru Park by mobilising a broad-based movement and civil disobedience. Against this backdrop, a new plan by the Kenyan government to build a four-lane expressway through Uhuru Park in 2019 triggered a national uproar and in the spirit of Prof. Maathai, vigils and demonstrations against these plans were held within days.
In 2016, the Nairobi County Government honored Prof. Maathai post-humously by renaming Forest Road to Prof. Wangari Maathai Road. It is such a wonderful coincidence that the Nairobi Office of Heinrich Böll Foundation has since been situated at “Prof. Wangari Maathai Road 1”.