She's survived jail, beatings, and endless death threats to help topple a tyrant, save Kenya's forests, and bring hope to countless women and children. Judith Stone spends two awed and inspired days in the radiant presence of the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai.
As Wangari Maathai makes her way through the crowded halls of the United Nations headquarters in New York City, she causes a stir of rock-star proportions. The first African woman—and first environmentalist—to win the Nobel Peace Prize, she's come to take part in the UN Commission on the Status of Women, a gathering of more than 1,800 representatives from 165 countries. It's tough for Maathai, 65, to get from one meeting, lecture, or panel to another because she stops every two feet to embrace supporters. She's a notoriously terrific hugger. "So good," says her daughter, Wanjira, 33, who works with her mother, "that we once auctioned off one of her hugs to raise money for the Green Belt Movement."
That's the organization Maathai launched in 1977, rallying poor, rural women to plant millions of trees to reverse the rampant deforestation of Kenya by a corrupt government. The women acquired not only desperately needed fuel, food, shelter, and income—the Green Belt Movement (GBM) pays a small fee for every seedling that flourishes—but a sense of their own untapped power. Other African nations followed Maathai's model. In nearly three decades, the GBM has planted more than 30 million trees and provided jobs for over 100,000 people, most of them women.
Along the way, through peaceful protests that captured world attention, the GBM opposed the despotic regime of Daniel arap Moi, Kenya's president from 1978 to 2002. Maathai was arrested, teargassed, clubbed senseless, whipped bloody, plagued by anonymous death threats, divorced by her husband for being, he declared, too educated and too hard to control, and denounced by Moi as a "threat to the order and security of the country." He was slightly off the mark. Maathai was very good for the order and security of the country, just very bad for him. Trees helped topple a dictator.
Giving the award to an environmentalist was controversial; one Norwegian politician complained that the committee should have focused on disarmament. Maathai believes they did. "When we have conflict, quite often it's because we're fighting over resources: who will control them, who will have access, who will take a greater share," she tells a gathering of dignitaries and environmental activists later in the day. The scarcer the resources—water, land, oil, trees, minerals—the greater the acrimony, she says.
Maathai's parents taught her to respect the soil and its bounty, and to love planting trees, she says. The daughter of subsistence farmers, she was born in the green, clean central highlands in the foothills of towering Mount Kenya. Maathai's oldest brother convinced their parents to send her to school when she was 7, unusual in a culture that didn't value educating women. She excelled and, in 1960, earned a scholarship to study in the United States. At Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, Maathai, known to her classmates as Mary Jo, was delighted by the novelty of falling leaves and snowstorms. Returning to Kenya, she became a professor of veterinary anatomy and the first woman at the University of Nairobi to chair a department. She also married Mwangi Mathai, who was a member of parliament, and had three children.
Maathai was shocked at the way her homeland had changed during her years away. The stream where she'd drawn drinking water had dried up. The forests where she'd gathered firewood had been razed for timber, cleared for commercial farming, or replaced by fast-growing exotic trees that sucked nutrients from the soil. Rich land was turning to desert.
"I listened to women saying that deforestation was forcing them to walk farther and farther to find firewood for cooking, that they couldn't grow enough on depleted soil to feed their families, that they had no money to buy food," she says. Trees, she thought, might solve all three problems. With support from the National Council of Women in Kenya, small groups of women gathered seeds and planted them. "Eventually, the movement became so powerful that the government saw the need to ban it," Maathai says with a laugh.
That happened after the GBM began advocating democracy and fighting corruption. Throughout the 1990s, Maathai was arrested again and again for opposing Moi; at times she had to wear disguises and sleep in safe houses. When she was (legally) planting trees to replace a forest being (illegally) cut and replaced by luxury housing, security guards whipped her on the head. She signed the police report in her own blood. While she was holding vigil with mothers protesting the imprisonment of their sons—prodemocracy activists—riot police clubbed Maathai unconscious, and she woke up in a hospital. She spent International Women's Day 2001 in jail for challenging the government's wrongdoings.
Since Moi's party's defeat in free elections in 2002, Maathai herself has entered Kenya's government. She now serves as assistant minister for environment and natural resources—and shows no signs of slowing down her activism. The GBM has taken on AIDS education, for example, especially dispelling myths and teaching women to protect themselves; Maathai is also working to save the threatened rainforest of the Congo basin—"one of the world's lungs," she calls it.
"People often ask what drives me," she says to me. "Perhaps the more difficult question would be: What would it take to stop me? I'm driven by opportunities to confront the problems before my eyes."
For more information about the Green Belt Movement—and to make a donation—visit greenbeltmovement.org.
Printed from Oprah.com on Sunday, March 9, 2014
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