Part 1: Wangari Maathai & The Green Belt Movement.

A few weeks back I came across this documentary on Youtube called ”Taking Roots” by a Kenyan woman called Wangari Maathai. It’s a long one – over an hour in length, but please stick with it to the end because her story is an incredible and heartwarming one of activism, bravery and most of all hope. It’s also a glimpse into Kenyan history and the era of colonialism.

I just had to share this important story, so I’ve done a 2 part blog I’m hoping you’ll like. This is a story about Kenya but it is also a story about the wider world. We share the same planet and battle many of the same problems – greed, corruption, destruction of natural resources, poverty etc…. Most of all this a story about the power of activism. Think 1 person can’t make a difference in this world? That we can’t stand against corruption? That we can’t improve our situation? I guaranteed you will feel differently after watching this 🙂

So who exactly is Wangari Maathai?

In 2004 she became the first African woman to receive a Nobel peace prize for her tireless work striving for democracy, environmental preservation, women’s rights and peace. Her closing statement when accepting the prize was: The challenge as I stand here today is to restore this home for the tadpoles and to give back to the children a world of beauty and wonder ” and that about sums up her work nicely!

Nobel Peace Prize

From Humble Beginnings to a Lasting Legacy

Wangari Maathari was a child of the land – she grew up in Kenya, closely connected to nature. As schoolgirl, Wangari was also one of a few gifted students who were given places in Catholic schools in Kenya. Educated by nuns – from a young age, Warangi Maathai developed a strong sense of right and wrong and a desire to do things for the common good. Little did she know at the time, but this would shape her entire life path.

There was no doubting that she was a promising and bright young student and in the 1960’s she was selected as one of some 300 Kenyans to study in the USA on a funded scholarship. After getting her degree in Biosciences, she then went back to Kenya a changed woman, a more confident woman. She had dreams of an academic career. However, adjusting back to life in Kenya was not easy. It was immediately apparent that in Kenyan academia and politics, men dominated and women did not have as many rights as those in the Western world did. This is something she would later fight for.

Political Activism

Now this is where Wangari Maathai really began to shine her light. As I mentioned, her upbringing provided her with super strong morals ”You raise your consciousness to a certain level where you feel you have to do the right thing – because it is the only right thing to do”.

Kenya in the 1960’s-1980’s.

This was a difficult time for her home country – rural communities especially. The environment had been destroyed thanks to the colonial legacy of deforestation and exploitation of resources. Streams were drying up, food was scarce, firewood was scarce, environmental diversity had dwindled and the country was descending into chaos due to the scarcity of resources. To top that off… when Daniel Arap Moi became President, corruption exploded. The elite continued to exploit the environment/resources at the expense of the people (sadly not much is different today the world over!)

Wangari spent her entire life campaigning tirelessly in the fight against this corruption and injustice. She never broke the law and always worked with peace in mind. Political powers higher up did their utmost to destroy her in reputation and in person. She stood up to them – withstanding threats, alienation and physical abuse. She put herself willingly in a vulnerable and dangerous position – nearly being assassinated several times over and badly beaten often over the years. Regardless, she kept on and would rather risk death and suffering than stand aside and let something unjust happen.

”We must stand up for what we believe in and we cannot be intimidated”

 Strength & Personal Struggle

In her adult life, Wangari wasn’t a stranger to personal struggles either… But she never felt sorry for herself. Her philosophy was that from adversity comes light. When you have nothing to lose, you have a certain freedom that you would never have had otherwise. A freedom to do what is right- to follow your own conscience, to fight for what you believe in. Her personal story is a sad one but like she says – it is possible that without this personal upheaval it is possible that she would never have achieved what she did. Strong Woman.

Here is a quote from the lady herself:

”Life is a struggle, you walk along it and you hope that things will be absolutely wonderful and they aren’t sometimes. You wake up one morning and you realise that you don’t have a family, your family has disintegrated, that the man in your life has disappeared and you wonder what happened…. No matter how desperate a situation seems – I don’t completely give up. In many ways this influenced the way I walked ever after. Would I have stood up for as long as I did if he (my husband) was there? I don’t know but I’m quite sure that the path would have been very different.”

In Part 2 – I’ll share some of her most notable achievements and talk about the ‘Greenbelt Project’ for which she is best known for:



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