Monday Muse: Wangari Maathai

Lately it seems like every time I sit in the lunchroom the conversation is the same: “What hope does the coming generation have when they only have people like X to look up to?”

‘X’ is of course whatever walking billboard is in the paper that day; be it Kim Kardashian, Lara Bingle or Justin Beiber.  And yes, the thought of my soon-to-arrive daughter being brainwashed into thinking vapidity is an asset is terrifying but hey, if you look under a rock you are going to find dirt. Past the Gatling assault of media trash there are SO many people that can inspire, steer and mould the current and future generations. So I have decided that every Monday I will celebrate these people on my blog and use them as a motivational tool; make my week count, make a difference in whatever I do.

It seems fitting then that the inaugural Monday Muse should be one of my favourite beings that has ever walked the earth…

Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)

The worlds light dimmed a bit on 25 September 2011 when Professor Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer. Thankfully this woman achieved so much in her 71 years that there will be an never-ending back catalogue to draw inspiration from. She has also left an incredible green legacy that will continue to grow and influence our direction as a planet without her present (well, physically present at least).

A Very Quick Biography

In 1966 Wangari was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree (studying Science), become Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy (1976) as well as Associate Professor (1977). Wangari sat on the board of many organisations, was Chairman of National Council of Women of Kenya, regularly addressed the UN, represented Kenyan Parliament and was an Honorary Councillor of the World Future Council. On top of all that, in 2004 she was also the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.

“I am working to make sure we don’t only protect the environment, we also improve governance”

The Tree Lady and Her Green Belts

While Chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya, Wangari indulged in an urge that many ignore –she fanned the tiny flicker of an idea. Her love of trees led to the introduction of a grassroots tree planting organisation; in 1977 the Green Belt Movement (GBM) was born. Since its formation, the GBM has been a enormously significant step for the empowerment of women in Kenya. Over 30,000 women have been trained in sustainable trades like forestry, food processing and bee-keeping and other trades that help earn income while preserving lands and resources. Perhaps Maathai should add “First Eco-Feminist” to her long list of achievements?

“The environment and the economy are really both two sides of the same coin. You cannot sustain the economy if you don’t take care of the environment because we know that the resources that we use whether it is oil, energy, land … all of these are the basis in which development happens. And development is what we say generates a good economy and puts money in our pockets. If we cannot sustain the environment, we can’t not sustain ourselves.” 

The GBM is a community based organisation that uses three main strategies to address conservation and tackle poverty; Tree Planting, Community Empowerment and Education and Advocacy.

Tree Planting

The GBM takes the Watershed Approach to tree planting. Rather than just haphazardly planting trees Wangari identified that there are five ‘water towers’ in Kenya that must be protected in order for the country to survive. These towers are protected when trees are planted in a belt formation which provide shade and windbreaks, facilitate soil conservation, improve the aesthetic beauty of the landscape and provide habitats for birds and small animals. Since 1977 when the GBM was formed over 40 million trees have been planted.

An example of one of her ‘belts’ is the protection of the Aberdare Mountain Range (one of the five water towers). The Tana River flows from the mountain range and powers a hydroelectric plant which generates more than half the country’s electricity as feeds the reservoirs of the cities capital, Nairobi. The water retention of this range has hugely suffered due to farming and harvesting. Therefore this is a site of major importance to the GBM and there are hundreds of nurseries that produce over 1.5 million native seedlings every season to combat this issue. Amazing huh?

If you want to read more about the fascinating Watershed approach then see this article.

Community Empowerment and Education

Knowledge is power. The GBM educates communities about the links between human activity and the health of the environment. The GBM then encourages these communities to come together, take action and stand up for their rights as well as providing practical learning about sustainable livelihoods.

“It is a bit sad that we have a government in this country that is actually overseeing the destruction of the forest…there comes a time when humanity is called upon to shift to a new level of consciousness… You raise your consciousness to a level where u feel that you must do the right thing. We see governments mistreating its citizens to the fullest… who is going to question when the law keeper breaks the law?”


The GBM advocates for environmental policy that ensures the protection of natural forests and community rights, especially communities living close to and in forest ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa and the Congo Basin Rainforest Ecosystem.

I love this call to action from Wangari prior to the G8/G20 Youth Summit in Toronto back in 2010.

Let Us Be Hummingbirds Together

As soon as I saw this video I immediately change the motif of my daughters’ room to incorporate hummingbirds. I cannot think of more beautiful and powerful message to send to children than this little parable. Actually, scrap that. This is important for everyone to hear!

“It is very important for young people not to be afraid of engaging in areas that are not common to the youth. Get involved in local activities, get involved in local initiatives, be involved in leadership positions because you can’t learn unless you are involved. And if you make mistakes that is alright too because we all make mistakes and we learn from those mistakes. You gain confidence from learning, failing and rising again.”

I hope that you are as inspired by this wonderful woman as I am. Every time I think of her I am reminded of what a massive difference one person and one little idea can make. She has also inspired me to not only indulge my thirst for knowledge but also speak up about those big, ‘untouchable’ issues and actually take action. I am right now looking into courses that will teach me how to effectively lobby for change. I am going to be a hummingbird.

Who are your biggest eco-inspirations? I’d love to hear in the comments…

Still Can’t Get Enough Of Her? Here Are Some Books…

  • The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience  (for synopsis click here)
  • Unbowed: A Memoir (for synopsis click here)
  • The Challenge for Africa (for synopsis click here)
  • Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (for synopsis click here)

There Are Even Children’s Books!

I can guarantee these books will be on heavy rotation when my little kidlet arrives;

  • Wangari’s Trees of Peace – A True Story from Africa (to buy click here)
  • Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya (to buy click here)
  • Planting the Trees of Kenya: The Story of Wangari Maathai (to buy, click here)

Taking Root

If you want to learn more about Wangari and the Green Belt Movement Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai is an award-winning documentary by Lisa Merton & Alan Dater. See the trailer below;

You can also buy it online here.

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