Much has been said about the African woman and she has been repeatedly stereotyped as the weaker sex, the one who must live in the shadow of her husband, the one who has no say in political or economic issues, and one whose responsibility is only to her husband and children. All of these stereotypes are in line with African cultures that are male-dominated, and any woman seen behaving differently is seen as an ill-mannered woman who was not properly brought up. In spite of all these constraints, a few women have dared to live outside the norm and they remain forces to be reckoned with. One such notable woman is Wangari Muta Maathai, the first female to earn a doctorate degree in East and Central Africa, the first African female Nobel peace prize winner, and the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a program that empowers Kenyans, particularly women, to combat deforestation.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born on 1st of April 1940 in Ihithe, a small village in Kenya, to a rural farming couple. She was the third of six children and the first girl child. She had her primary and high school education in Kenya at a time when educating female children was seen as a waste of time but because of her elder brother’s and her mother’s determination, she enrolled anyway. She got an opportunity to have her university education in the United States under the John F. Kennedy Scholarship just before Kenya regained its independence from the British
On completion of her undergraduate studies in 1966, Wangari returned to Kenya, where she hoped to work as a research assistant at the University of Nairobi. However, this was not to be. The professor she was to assist later denied her the job and instead offered it to someone else who was not only a male and also from his tribe. This was to be the first in a long line of sexist and ethnic battles she had to fight. She would eventually get a job at the same university, where she progressed to become a professor of veterinary anatomy
Besides challenges in her profession, Wangari Maathai also dealt with challenges in her marriage. She got home one day to discover that her husband of eight years, with whom she had had three children, had packed out of their matrimonial home. Her husband had decided that he couldn’t tolerate her boldness anymore and gave in to societal pressure that did not give room for women to outshine their husbands. Since her husband was a politician and wanted to humiliate her, their divorce was open to public debate. Wangari did not let this deter her and instead became more involved with environmental and societal issues, eventually founding the Green Belt Movement. With the help of other women, she succeeded in planting more than 20 million trees.
Her outspokenness on societal issues, which the then-authoritarian administration in Kenya saw as an affront on their leadership, got her into trouble many times. Between January 1992 and July 2001, she was beaten, jailed, forcefully arrested, and detained five times, and was even hospitalised at times. However, this only added to her zeal to continually speak out against barbaric environmental practices and oppression of the poor. Her efforts were eventually recognized by the international community, which awarded her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.
Wangari’s story is one of hard work, determination, and the will not to allow anything deter one from achieving their dreams. In her own words:
I have always seen failure as a challenge to pull myself up and keep going. A stumble is only one step in the long path we walk and dwelling on it only postpones the completion of our journey. Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.
Wangari died of ovarian cancer on 25th September 2011. She will always be remembered by many: the women she paid to plant trees, the women that she organised to secure the release of their wrongfully detained sons, and the countless others who were blessed through her in one way or the other.