Wangari Maathai: Green Goddess

Becca Anderson (author of The Book of Awesome Women) brings you this environmentalist who fought to keep the earth green.

Wangari Maathai is a remarkable woman. She set her sights on saving the farmlands, forests, and grasslands of the most politically unstable continent she calls home—Africa. To that end, she has started the Green Belt Movement. “We wanted to emphasize that by cutting trees, removing vegetation, having this soil erosion, we were literally stripping the Earth of its color,” she remarks.

Wangari comes from a sacred spot for all of mankind; the rural village she was born in is beside the Great Rift Valley, the birthplace of the first humans who walked upright. Many call Wangari’s home the cradle of life. Early on, she was instructed by her mother about the importance and sanctity of land and that which grows upon it, especially trees. In 1960, she left her village and took a scholarship offered to Kenyans by the United States. She found higher education to be very much her bailiwick, receiving a master of science from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate from the University of Nairobi, the first woman ever to do so. She then went on to rack up a number of other firsts in her homeland, including becoming the University of Nairobi’s first female professor, first department chair, and first woman in the anatomy department.

Even though she enjoyed a happy marriage to a member of Kenya’s Parliament, had a thriving career, and was raising three children, she still found time to become involved with women’s rights. Her Kikuyu background was different from the district in Nairobi her husband was assigned to. As a Kikuyu woman, Wangari had been free to express her opinions and be actively involved in village affairs. In Nairobi, she was regarded as much too uppity for her own good. Proving them right, Wangari decided to run for Parliament and quit her job at the university to work full-time on her campaign. When she was told she was ineligible to run for Parliament because she was a woman, the university refused to hire her back.

Wangari then turned her prodigious energy to the environment. On World Environment Day in 1977, she and her supporters planted seven trees in a public park and laid the foundation for the Green Belt movement. Put down by many, and even beaten with clubs, she was accused of throwing her education and talent away. This time, she proved everybody wrong. Wangari discovered that only 3 percent of the Kenyan forest was still standing. As a result, Kenyan villagers were suffering malnutrition, erosion of their farmland, and the subsequent loss of water as springs and creeks dried up. She quite accurately foresaw famine and environmental disaster unless trees were again planted to restore the environment to its natural state. Wangari traveled throughout Kenya, teaching village women how to plant trees and how to start them from seeds they collected. Soon children got involved in the Green Belt planting projects, and by 1988, more than 10,000 trees were planted.

Wangari’s brilliant strategy is simple. She doesn’t try to convert villagers to the program. She waits for word of the good work and practical results to spread and, soon enough, the Green Belters are asked to come to another area. In addition to helping to stem the tide of complete destruction of Kenya’s ecosystem, Wangari’s Green Belt movement has provided many economic opportunities for Kenya’s women.

Over the years, Wangari Maathai has received greater recognition for founding the Green Belt movement than any parliamentary seat would have provided. She has received many awards, become a Nobel Laureate, received a “Woman of the World” award from Diana, Princess of Wales, and the encouragement to continue her invaluable work in the regreening of Africa’s precious heartland.

“One person can make the difference.”
— Wangari Maathai

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

The Book of Awesome Women

Boundary Breakers, Freedom Fighters, Sheroes & Female Firsts

Super women as female role models. From the foremothers who blazed trails and broke barriers, to today’s women warriors from sports, science, cyberspace, city hall, the lecture hall, and the silver screen, The Book of Awesome Women paints 200 portraits of powerful and inspiring role models for women and girls poised to become super women of the future. Discover some of the most awesome women known to history while celebrating the greatness of females all over!

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