Unsung Heroes: Wangari Maathai
A Black History Month Series
Welcome to part four of our blog series “Unsung Heroes,” lifting up Black leaders around the world for Black History Month. Because of my extensive travel experience and the ways those travels influenced my life, worldview, and career, I find it important to not only lift up Black American voices during this month, but Black voices from around the world. This is consistent with my perspective that we are celebrating Black History Month and not just African American history month. Stick with us this month to learn about some relatively unknown, uncelebrated Black heroes.
Who Was Wangari Maathai?
Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) was a bold Kenyan conservationist, human rights advocate, parliamentarian, professor, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. A pioneering woman leader, Professor Maathai was the first woman to become a professor in Kenya, the first female African Nobel Peace Prize winner, and one of the first African women ever to receive a doctorate. Overcoming many challenges, Maathai established a movement for conservation and environmental action in her native Kenya and in other African countries.
Seeds become Trees
Professor Maathai felt trees were close to her heart from a young age. As she grew, she came to understand the connection between trees, water, agricultural success, and the health of the land. Recognizing the devastating effects of deforestation, cash crop agriculture, and more — all carryovers from British colonial rule — Maathai began a movement to plant trees. This action, when done by many individuals, would help rebuild the watershed, restore nutrients to the earth, and once again allow for flourishing and self-sufficient communities.
Indigenous Black Identity vs Something White People Do
It is an unfortunate twist of fate, that too many African Americans associate conservation efforts and movements like this with White people, as “something that White people do.” What is indigenous to being a Black person in many countries around the world where Black people come from is foreign to the identity of too many Black people in the U.S. This reflects a fundamental disconnection for many African Americans to an indigenous definition of what it means to be Black.
Wangari Maathai knew that putting seeds into the hands of Kenyan women would be beneficial for both them and the earth. When she established the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she called on rural women to take matters into their own hands — literally — and begin the process of reforestation. For every small tree that these women nurtured and planted, they would receive a payment. Thus, this movement inspired similar ones to begin in other African countries and rebuild the strength of African women and the environment.
In protests to protect sacred forests, disagreements in her marriage, and anti-development activism, Professor Maathai faced harassment, violence, death threats, and jailing. Nevertheless, her astounding persistence led to the allowal of opposition parties by the dictatorial Kenyan government and, eventually, to the destruction of the dictatorship and her own election to the Kenyan parliament.
Colonialism, Freedom, and Peace
Living an outstandingly ambitious and selfless life, Wangari Maathai overcame the unlikelihood of a girl being educated in British-occupied Kenya and went on to do bigger and better things in life. From that first refusal to comply with a colonialist custom, to her eventual tree-planting legacy, Professor Maathai was able to re-empower Kenyans to steward their communities and their land, restoring it from the greed-driven pillaging and plundering that occurred under British rule. Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 as the first ever environmentalist to achieve this feat is a testament to her courage, vision, and power to make grassroots change a reality.
Plant a tree in honor of Wangari Maathai and consider how your work, energy, and resources can be employed towards the goal of a healthier earth and a more equitable human race.