Wangari Maathai

She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, a grass roots initiative in Africa in which citizens planted over 30 million trees. Kenya-born Wangari Maathai was reared in underprivileged circumstances, during the 1940s, by Western definition. The daughter of a peasant farmer, Wangari was the third of six children and was delivered in her mud-walled home that had no electricity or running water. Somewhere in the course of her 70-year-old life Wangari found the courage, strength and wisdom, to rise against the odds of being a woman living in the Dark Continent to give new purpose to her existence. And not just to hers alone, but a whole new purpose to the lives of thousands of other women in her environment.Wangari was undoubtedly gifted with academic ability as a child and that proved to be the key for her to break out of oppressive circumstances. A star student, she won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St Scholastica College in Kansas, USA, receiving a degree in 1964. She went on to earn a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She was to later say, “The spirit of freedom and possibility that America nurtured in me made me want to foster the same in Kenya, and it was in this spirit that I returned home.” In Kenya, she went on to obtain a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree. She also taught at the university as an associate professor and was chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s.The Green Belt movement emerged from Wangari’s dismay at returning home to Kenya and finding that her favourite fig tree, where she had played as a child, had been cut down, the stream running near it had dried up. It was a microcosm of what was going on in Kenya and Africa where massive deforestation had been taking place for timber and to grow cash-rich crops like coffee and tea. Wangari got together with the women in her neighbourhood to plant trees, explaining to them that there was a connection between the lack of forest and the lack of water…and the subsequent erosion of topsoil in their region. On Earth Day in 1977, she mounted a rally that resulted in the planting of seven trees in honor of legendary women and men who had made contributions to their communities. With that act, Maathai’s organisation, the Green Belt Movement, was born.The group started small, with only a handful of villagers gathering seeds and planting them. At first, government officials laughed at the program, claiming that only professional foresters knew how to plant trees. But eventually the first small groups of villagers trained other groups and over the next thirty years, more than 30 million trees were planted. Six thousand tree nurseries were created and operated by women, and jobs were provided for more than one hundred thousand people. Most importantly, an enormous power shift occurred as women began to take control of their futures. As authors Anne and Frances Lapp explained in Mother Earth News, “Women discovered they were not powerless in the face of oppressive husbands and village chiefs.”Her grass roots movement among women, which emerged at a time when environmentalism or women’s issues were hardly fashionable, proved a resounding success over time and later went on to win Dr Maathai the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2004. A few years before she died in 2010, Wangari was quoted as saying that she believed in empowering people to do things for themselves and what was done for the people without involving them cannot be sustained. As far as being successful was concerned, she added ““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.” Worthy lessons from a victorious life.The author is a spiritual writer with dna @dna

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Wangari Maathai: A mission of peace for the environment