Wangari Maathai was a troublemaker. The activist and environmentalist who passed away on Monday morning in Nairobi hospital is today mourned as a hero in her native Kenya, but she was not always so popular with the ruling elite. Arrested, persecuted, beaten and reportedly threatened with assassination at various times in her career, Maathai may now become the first woman to be given a state funeral in Kenya.
Maathai was used to being first. She was the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a PhD — in 1971 — and the first woman professor at the University of Nairobi. When Maathai unexpectedly won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 she became the first African woman to do so. Perhaps more significantly — although less commented on — Wangari Maathai was also the first environmentalist to be awarded the prize.
At first glance Maathai’s activism seems to have taken a scattergun approach. Officially, she was awarded the Nobel for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. In Kenya she was as famous for saving inner-city parks as for advocating for women. But for those who closely followed her career she is remembered as a pioneering ecofeminist, one of the first to explicitly link women’s rights and livelihoods with sustainability and environmentalism.
The Green Belt Movement, started by Maathai in 1977, sought to empower rural women through the simple act of planting trees to provide firewood and financial support. To date, 40million trees have been planted and thousands of women trained in forestry, agro-industry and ecotourism. The movement has been closely echoed in other parts of the developing world.
When Maathai’s MP husband sued for divorce in 1979 he cited the fact that she was too strong-willed for a woman and that he was unable to control her. When the court agreed, Wangari accused the judge of corruption and incompetence, resulting in contempt of court charges and a brief stint in jail. In many ways, it is a story that sums up Maathai’s career.
Throughout the 1980s and early ’90s, Maathai was a renowned agitator in Kenya, leading protests and even a hunger strike — against private development projects on public land as well as for multiparty democracy. Her dissent cast light on government corruption and led to arrests and persecution. But by 2002 things were changing for Maathai — she won election to parliament, with 98% of the vote in her home constituency.
For all of Maathai’s environmental activism, the focus of her direct action was always local, and until she was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2004 she was largely unknown outside of Kenya. At the time there were some suggestions that perhaps Maathai’s position as an African woman actually contributed to her winning the award, when other candidates were more obvious. In truth, there may well be something in this claim, but it doesn’t take away from the fact Maathai’s work, nor the fact that the Nobel Prize improved her global standing, immensely strengthened her voice within Africa and offered her some protection against persecution.
Typically, Wangari Maathai still found ways to court controversy. In 2004, at the height of her success, Kenya’s The Standard newspaper printed a report quoting Maathai as claiming that HIV/AIDS was “deliberately created by Western scientists to decimate the African population”. Maathai denied making the statements, but her initial equivocation and comments following the controversy left some doubt as to her opinion, and a slight taint on her reputation outside of Kenya.
In the end it was ovarian cancer that brought an end to Wangari Maathai’s activism. Her passing has left a gaping hole in Kenya’s political life, which now as much as any time needs leaders prepared to work outside the system and speak up against political cronyism and corruption. The world needs more troublemakers such as Wangari Maathai.