Africa 3  October 11 04

Too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.

After the last depressing post about what can happen to Kenyan women, there was an uplifting story this week. Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel peace prize. Amidst all the stories about political infighting, vast tracts of ‘stolen’ land and corrupt politicians that have captured the headlines for so long, "Crusading Wangari’ comes like a breath of fresh air.

To understand the full import to women and those fighting for human rights and the environment, we have to take a look at her life story. The ‘powers that be’ are now somewhat embarrassed at having to sing the praises of a woman long considered a ‘trouble maker’

She is 64 years old, still working on her crusades when most people retire at 55. Girls of her generation did not have an easy path because tradition ordained (as it still does) that boys get priority in most aspects of life. She was the first woman in East Africa (Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda) to earn a doctorate degree, having studied in the US for her bachelors and M SC; in Germany and Nairobi for her PhD. She became the first woman to occupy the chair of the Department of Veterinary Medicine in Nairobi and taught as an assistant professor. She took a leave of absence to try to run for political office, but the ruling party would not accept her candidacy due to her outspokenness. Then the university refused to take her back, and nor would anyone else give her a job.

So she worked as a volunteer for the National Council of Women in Kenya. She organized the rural women to plant trees for firewood and paid them for each tree that survived. The depletion of the forests for planting or for firewood is still a major problem. This was the beginning of the Green Belt movement. So far they have planted ten million trees.

She has three children, but divorced in 1988 because her husband complained she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."

In 1989 she shamed international investors into abandoning a 60 storey project in Uhuru Park, one of the few green areas in Nairobi. In retaliation the Moi government shut down the Green Belt offices.

In 1991 she was arrested and imprisoned until an Amnesty International letter writing campaign helped to free her.

In 1992, during a hunger strike in Uhuru Park to press for the release of political prisoners, she was beaten unconscious by police.

In 1997 she expressed interest in the Presidency, but the party withdrew her candidacy a few days before the election.

It will be no surprise if she is now offered an important Cabinet post and even runs for President in 2007.

Quotes from Wangari Maathai:

"You should not be disempowered by the problems you see, you must be empowered by hope. Despite all the problems we go through, I have hope for the new millennium."

"By howling and yelling we’ve really raised it to the national level. People have started understanding that forests don’t belong to governments."

"With a leadership that is so corrupt, it is difficult to protect the environment. People tend to think forests are government property and the government takes advantage of their ignorance. We emphasize they are for the common good, for now and for the future."

"If you attack a woman by attacking her womanhood, she’ll feel embarrassed and violated. You’re human, you don’t want to be humiliated. They hope you will be so hurt you will not raise your voice. The real objective is to stop you talking."

(In answer to an MP who threatened to ‘circumcise’ her if she set foot in his constituency) "I’m sick and tired of men who are so incompetent that every time they feel the heat because women are challenging them, they have to check their genitalia to reassure themselves. I’m not interested in that part of the anatomy. The issues I’m dealing with require the utilisation of what’s above the neck. If you don’t have anything there, leave me alone."

"I have been trying to fight ignorance. People become very vulnerable when they do not receive information. They are marginalised by their own government. Because of ignorance and poverty they do things that are against their own self-interest."

"I have invested twenty years of my life in the campaign for the environment and I’m still only scratching the surface. I am confident of winning...We cannot dignify theft."