Wangari Maathai, Unbowed


Ch. 1. Wangari Maathai was born in 1940, in the village of Ihithe in the central highlands of Kenya, near the provincial capital of Nyeri, in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range, where you can see Mount Kenya.


What was the landscape of her childhood like? What wild plants and animals were there? What cultivated plants and domesticated animals? What were the water sources? The Great Rift Valley stretches from Jordan to Mozambique, 6000 km.


What was the impact of European settlers (missionaries, traders, administrators) who arrived at the end of the nineteenth century?  On the people (Christianity, cash based economy) and on the landscape (wheat, maize, coffee, tea). What was the status of British settlers vis a vis the native communities, in the early 20th c.?


Maathai's tribe is the Kikuyu, who leave near the pastoralist Maasai. Their culture was oral. But her parents were athomi. How did Maathai's relation to her mother differ from her relation to her father? What was her father's relation to Mr. Neylan, the British settler? How did Maathai experience the polygamous homestead on which she was raised? And trips to Nakuru, the nearby city? What happened to her father when Kenya won its independence?


Ch. 2. In 1947, Maathai went with her mother and two brothers to Nyeri, 60 miles away. Why does she mention the beautiful baskets she remembers, from the days when Nyeri was a market town? She is sent to school in Ihithe with her brothers, learning to "read, write and rub." She studied in Kikuyu, and learned Kiswahili, English, maths, and geography. Why does she describe the wild animals, fig trees, and streams, and her experience of cultivating the land at dusk? And the stories of her aunt, Nyakweya?


Ch. 3. Maathai was enrolled in St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school run by the Mathari Catholic Mission and the (Italian) Consolata Missionary Sisters, in Nyeri. She was a good student and the nuns were kind, but she and her classmates had to speak English: what was the deep-lying effect of this rule? She also converted to Catholicism.


What was the Mau Mau rebellion (the Land and Freedom Army)?  (Land, freedom, self-governance).  What is her retrospective assessment of the movement? Who was Jomo Kenyatta?


Maathai then went to Loreto Girls' High School in Limuru, outside Nairobi, the only Catholic high school for African girls, in Kenya. There she discovered her interest in chemistry and biology. P. 71 "I got this ticket out [her college degree], but I never severed my connection to the soil.]


Ch. 4. 1957-1963: Kenya achieves independence.


The United States (under the leadership of John and Robert Kennedy, and Andrew Young) offers scholarships for promising students from emerging African states. Maathai flew to Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, in September 1960, via NYC and a brush with American racism in a bus stop. She majored in biology, and was a good student. The nuns were kind, and the education liberal. She could never go home for vacations, so stayed with a friend near Wichita; she made friends with Americans and other foreign students.


She worked as a lab technician in the summers, and found out more about African Americans and the African diaspora, and celebrated Kenya's independence in Dec. 1963 in Lawrence Kansas, sadly just after John Kennedy's assassination. She went on to receive a Master's degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. After five and a half years abroad, she came back to Kenya, with the name Wangari Muta (instead of Mary Josephine Wangari).


Ch. 5. On Jan. 6, 1966, she came back home to a transformed Kenya, with her whole family waiting to meet her. What was her first experience at the University of Nairobi? Her first job was at the Dept. of Veterinary Anatomy (she was a specialist in microscopy and the preparation of slides), where she also registered for her Ph. D. She bought a car. Nairobi has only half a million people, lots of open space and no slums.


In April 1966, she met Mwangi Mathai, whom she married in 1969, after two years of study in Germany, at the University of Giessen and the University of Munich. Why was it problematic for her to be a highly educated woman in Kenya, given the notion of a "good African woman"? The murder of Tom Mboya: tensions between the Luo and Kikuyu communities.


In 1971, she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a Ph. D. - and it was presented by President Kenyatta. What kind of discrimination did she experience at the university?


Ch. 6. Maathai worked with the Kenya Red Cross, the Kenya Association of University Women, the National Council of Women of Kenya, and the Environment Liason Centre (related to the United Nations Environment Programme, whose headquarters were in Nairobi. Working on livestock parasites, she noticed the extent of soil erosion in the rural areas she visited, landslides, silted rivers, and the malnourishment of people and livestock. Much of the land was planted with commercial trees, and tea and coffee. The fig tree of her childhood was cut down, and with it went the water source it helped create and sustain.


The Green Belt Movement: why not plant trees? Her first attempts. Her first global meeting: Habitat I, in Vancouver, in June 1976.  Save the Land Harambee: Kenyatta's idea of community mobilization. August-Sept. 1977: World Desertification Conference in Nairobi. Various tree-planting initiatives, in relation to the NCWK.


At first they distributed seedlings, but there weren't enough (even with help from the Dept. of Forests) to answer the demand. The solution was to create local sources of seedlings, to get communities to create their own seedling nurseries. Local women became "foresters without diplomas." P. 136. The importance of bio-diversity: they also collected local seeds, instead of depending on a centralized seed bank. The Green Belt Movement, supported by the NCWK, the Canadian ambassador, and Mobil Oil, then compensated the women for the  number of seedlings they planted. Green belts held the soil in place, provided shade and windbreads, re-created habitat and enhanced the beauty of the landscape.


p. 138. "Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don't need a diploma to plant a tree."


Ch. 7. What were the structural problems that made Wangari Maathai's relation to her husband Mwangi Mathai difficult?


The marriage ended in 1977. What made the ending even more difficult for her? Why was there a divorce trial? Why was the trial covered so closely in the press? Why did she lose the case? Why was she put in jail afterwards? What good came out of the experience for Maathai?


Why did Maathai take a job with the United Nations Development Program? Why did she give her children (aged 10, 8 and 6)  back (and up) to her husband? They stayed with their father from 1977-1985; and they all went to college in the United States.


Ch. 8. At first, the Green Belt Movement was under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya, and found some European funding. She ran for office in the NCWK (twice), but was not elected. President Kenyatta was succeeded by Daniel arap Moi, who from the beginning seemed to behave in an autocratic way: "he moved quickly to consolidate his power."


In part because of this conflict, the NCWK split from the Maendeleo Ya Wanawake which  then became the women's wing of the ruling party, Kenyan African National Union (KANU). In 1980, Maathai became chairman of the NCWK, but it was almost bankrupt; she remained chair until 1987.


In 1982, she took the risk of running for Parliament, which meant resigned her job; she lost, and lost her job as well, which also meant losing her house. She moved into a small house she bought in 1975, where she lived for 25 years. Fortunately, a conference in August allowed her to renew her contacts with the UN Environmental Program, via the Kenya Environmental Liason Centre, and a march she organized in Uhuru Park; she applied to the UN Development Fund for Women, UNIFEM. Meanwhile, she was supported by the Norwegian Forestry Society, who offered her the job of coordinator; she also received seed money from UNIFEM, headed by Margaret Snyder.


Thus, the Green Belt Movement began to expand; she was able to hire a staff. There was a project in Murang'a (on the way to Nyeri). She changed the incentives a bit, so that the seedlings had to survive for at least six months before remuneration, and encouraged women to work out their own strategies, based on the special conditions of each region and village. People were encouraged to plan in their own languages. And they employed some men, but many turned out to be dishonest, she reports. She got people to connect the dots, by means of seminars: government selling off land, the timber industry, the destruction of watersheds and biodiversity, and malnutrition, scarcity of clean water, topsoil loss, erratic rains.


1985. The UN convenes the third global women's conference in Nairobi. Maathai's group is sidelined by the government, but she manages to make contacts via the Environment Liaison Centre, and meets Margeret Snyder and Helvi Sipila, UN asst. secretary general, who invited her to Finland. So UNIFEM-Finland also began raising funds for the Green Belt Movement.


1986-1990. UNEP supports four workshops that brings people from 15 African countries to learn about the GBM's programs and methods. The GBM, and Maathai, also begin to win awards and recognition, which helped to protect her in the conflicts to come.


The government tried to undo Maathai's increasing influence, first by dissociating the GBM and the NCWK, and then by disrupting their meetings. The government began to clamp down on dissent, including student dissent at the University of Nairobi, and to limit the independence of the judiciary.


Ch. 9. In 1989, Maathai organized people to prevent the construction of a large complex and skyscraper in Uhuru Park. She enlisted the aid of the UN Development Program, the press, and the public. As a result of the public debate that emerged, the government evicted the GBM from its offices, and she moved them into her own house. (They stayed there for seven years.) They continued to write letters to save the park, and finally the government backed down, because its mismanagement of resources was exposed by the press; and many donor agencies and diploments noticed that the Kenyan people were speaking out in their own interest - that the government had become dictatorial. By early 1992, the government gave up the project completely.


Ch 10. Maathai had become a political figure. Robert Ouko's death (Saba Saba) began a train of events. Maathai planted a grove of trees in Uhuru Park as a memorial. In 1991, Oginga Odinga founded an opposition party (FORD), and national elections were scheduled for 1992; and they prevented Moi from staging a coup. Maathai was thrown into jail and charged with various offenses, including treason. However, people from all over Kenya and the world protested her incarceration: her allies in Kenya, UNIFEM, GROOTS, WEDO, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (And Al Gore and Edward Kennedy!) After being released, Maathai supported a group of mothers whose children were political prisoners (Release Political Prisoners) and worked with them until everyone was released; this included a protest in Uhuru Park where she was severely beaten, and hospitalized - as well as the occupation of the Anglican Cathedral. Most of  the prisoners in question were released in 1993 and one in 1997. Notice, at the end of this chapter, her dream of a green Haiti.


Ch. 11. The elections of 1992 unfortunately did not oust  Moi, because the opposition parties (FORD-Kenya and FORD-Asili, as well as the Democratic Party) were too fragmented, and failed to unite around a single candidate for president. President Moi stirred up ethnic animosity in the provinces to further fragment the opposition; Maathai publicized his motives, and also helped set up the Tribal Clashes Resettlement Volunteer Service. She got displaced persons to set up tree nurseries in the camps where they were staying. She was subject to harassment by the government, which accused her of supporting the 'supremacy of the Kikuyu,' and finally for a period of time she went underground. She was eventually able to re-emerge, thanks to international support, and concluded that national unification over tribal conflicts was centrally important for Kenya: p. 249. "I knew that the issues of land and governance had to be part of the civic and environmental education that GBM members received."


Ch. 12. In 1997, she considers running for Parliament again. P. 255. "Practice through mainstream politics what you have been preaching - and doing - through the Green Belt Movement for years." Meanwhile, poverty deepened and corruption was widespread; large areas of forest were still being sold and logged legally and illegally. She was not elected, and the opposition once again failed to unite, so that Moi remained in office.  She then founded the Mazingira Green Party and went back to work with the GBM. They stopped the selling-off the the botanical park in Nairobi, and various other parcels of public land. They protested the deforestation of Ngong and South Western Mau forests, and Karura Forest, which acts as an important windbreak and serves as a catchment area for four major rivers, and harbors lots of plants and animals. This led to more protests (during one of which she was beaten by thugs), and more publicity; in 1999, Moi announced that he was banning all allocation of public land; illegal logging in Karura Forest continued, however. As a consequence of this experience, Maathai widened the scope of the GBM's activities, to include the protection of public lands, as well as the nursery cultivation of seedlings. After the 2002 elections, when a new government was voted into office, a partnership between the GBM and the government was set up to protect the five water towers of Kenya: Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, the Mau complex, the Cherangani hills and Mount Elgon. She adds that the Congo Basin Forest also requires protections, like the Amazon. Her mother died in 2000: "May she sleep where it rains."


Ch. 13. The campaign for rich countries to cancel the debt owed to them by poor countries. Throughout 2001, her protests continue and she is jailed once again. The change of government in 2002 gives her some hope for the future, and she is finally elected to Parliament. And then (Epilogue) she wins the Nobel Peace Price in 2004, which gives her and her Green Belt Movement increased scope, visibility, and ability to get things done. P. 295: "We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!"

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In "The Challenge for Africa" Wangari Maathai discusses the interaction between humans and the environment, and how complex these relationships have become. Maathai directs her focus unto Africa, offering critiques of education, politics, farming practices and living methodologies. Although these critiques are meant for Africa in particular, they are relevant to human and environmental relationships all over the world. The relevance of Maathai's critiques may stretch beyond the continent of Africa just as the effects of colonialization have.

Maathai discussion addresses multiple issues that exemplify how important it is that the ownership of Africa needs to come back to the native African people. The immense inequality of land distribution among whites and native Africans along with the funneling of touristic revenue to foreign companies are two of the largest issues facing Africa. Although Maathai does recognize that Africans must start to take action for reformation and betterment within their own country she also recognizes that colonialization of Africa is what first began the country's destruction.

The colonialization of Africa not only displaced many native Africans from the regions in which they lived, but it also introduced the concept of land ownership. Previous to colonialization land use was not determined by the possession of deeds, signatures or the male gender. Through this new concept of land ownership women were discriminated against as they could only have a type of ownership and access to land through a male relative such as a father or husband. Although there have been improvements in this law due to women's advocacy groups the native African people as a whole are still experiencing discriminatory effects of colonialization.

Displaced and disadvantaged native Africans own little land and have very restricted interaction with what ought to be prevalent flora and fauna. In South Africa, as of 2005, "96 percent of arable land was still owned by white farmers." (228) This figure is astonishing and is accompanied by many other related statistics and figures that display the detrimental effects of colonialization. Maathai discusses a particular example, the murder of Robert Njoya, to display some of these effects. Robert Njoya, a native African man was killed in 2006 by Thomas Cholmondeley, the great-grandson of Lord Delamere of Britain, upon suspicion of poaching on his property. This case "has fascinated Kenyans and Europeans alike, as it encapsulates the racial, class, and land divides that still grip parts of Africa, more than forty years after Kenyan independence." (229)

Robert Njoya was not a pastoralist and as such did not have his own livestock. Njoya also experienced the colonial movement of wildlife from open land onto privately owned property. Therefore, although traditionally Njoya would have eaten domestic animals instead of wild life he has been forcefully deculturated and the wild life on neighboring private land has became "potential food - either for his or his family's consumption, or to sell in the market." (230) Thus, not only are people such as Njoya harmed through the colonial concept and continued enforcement of land ownership but there has been an acceleration in the "destruction of species that in the past he would not have harmed." (232)

The native people of Africa are continuously being disadvantaged and discriminated against in regards to their finances, their values, and their culture. Maathai advocates that centralizing tourism among native Africans will increase their financial situations, potentially aiding people like Njoya to no longer poach but to "buy food instead, and in the process see wildlife as having more value to him alive than dead." (232) The hope for Africa is in the empowerment of individuals and the increasing of native African's senses of ownership. As Maathai says, she doesn't "mean just material ownership, but also ownership at a deeper level: taking responsibility for, and pride in, protecting wildlife and the environment, and the sharing of their nation and its cultures with visitors from around the world." (232)

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