Fighting for the women, fighting for nature: Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai could have been just another woman who struggled all her life to make ends meet, who got mired in the problems of daily life, and who eventually died without many people being aware of her existence. However, such a thing was not meant to be. Wangari Maathai died after having lived an incredibly eventful life. She died with half the world knowing who she is, and what she did. She died as a phenomenal woman, who changed the course of history, and who valiantly fought on right till her death.
Maathai was born in the Nyeri district of Kenya, and her family belonged to the Kikuyu ethnic group, which had a majority population over there. She was born in 1940, when Africa was still under colonial rule, and she somehow managed to complete her education before Africa’s independence neared, and she got the chance to go and study in Kansas. Under scholarship, she went to Mount St. Scholastica College, and she studied biology.
She went to the University of Pittsburg for her Masters degree in Biology, and after she was offered the position for research assistant for the department of Zoology in the University College of Nairobi, but upon return, she found out that on account of the gender bias, her position had been filled by someone else. However, she went on to become the senior lecturer at anatomy, the head of the department of Veterinary Anatomy as well as associate professor. This was the first time that a woman in Nairobi held these positions. He was also the first woman to get her doctorate, in the whole of Kenya.
Wilhelm Elsrud offered her a position as the coordinator in the Green Belt Movement, and she immediately joined it. She had also been a part of the National Council of Women in Kenya. The two ideas came together, with Maathai helping rural women by teaching them how to plant trees and how to save the environment while making some amount of income. There were soon a number of such projects, which not only helped women become financially independent, but also fought against deforestation, soil erosion, and other such problems. Despite the government trying to intervene a number of times, Maathai kept fighting in order to realize her dream of combining the alleviation of starvation in rural areas, and deforestation all over the country.
According to her, she grew up watching the white industrialists pulling down the trees which grew abundantly in Kenya, and that is what inspired her to take up the challenge on combating deforestation. Instead of working from the higher echelons of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai’s knees would almost always be dusty because of her habit of being hands-on. She would get down on her hands and knees in order to show the rural women how to plant trees and what they had to do in order to ensure the trees’ survival.
It is only because of her unrelenting efforts at environmentalism, democracy, women’s empowerment and development that she received the Nobel Prize in 2004. Like her many firsts, she was also the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in the whole of Africa. She died at the age of 71, after fighting with cancer, in 2011. But she paved the way for many women to rise up and take action. She became the guiding light for many who may want to take up the mantle.