Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai, © 2000 Eddie Adams


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Throughout Africa (as in much of the world) women hold primary responsibility for tilling the fields, deciding what to plant, nurturing the crops, and harvesting the food. They are the first to become aware of environmental damage that harms agricultural production: If the well goes dry, they are the ones concerned about finding new sources of water and those who must walk long distances to fetch it. As mothers, they notice when the food they feed their family is tainted with pollutants or impurities: they can see it in the tears of their children and hear it in their babies’ cries. Wangari Maathai, Kenya’s foremost environmentalist and women’s rights advocate, founded the Green Belt Movement on Earth Day 1977, encouraging the farmers (70 percent of whom are women) to plant “greenbelts” to stop soil erosion, provide shade, and create a source of lumber and firewood. She distributed seedlings to rural women and set up an incentive system for each seedling that survived. To date, the movement has planted over fifteen million trees, produced income for eighty thousand people in Kenya alone, and has expanded its efforts to over thirty African countries, the United States, and Haiti. Maathai won the Africa Prize for her work in preventing hunger, and was heralded by the Kenyan government and controlled press as an exemplary citizen. A few years later, when Maathai denounced President Daniel arap Moi’s proposal to erect a sixty-two-story skyscraper in the middle of Nairobi’s largest park (graced by a four-story statue of Moi himself), officials warned her to curtail her criticism. When she took her campaign public, she was visited by security forces. When she still refused to be silenced, she was subjected to a harassment campaign and threats. Members of parliament denounced Maathai, dismissing her organization as “a bunch of divorcees.” The government-run newspaper questioned her sexual past, and police detained and interrogated her, without ever pressing charges. Eventually Moi was forced to forego the project, in large measure because of the pressure Maathai successfully generated. Years later, when she returned to the park to lead a rally on behalf of political prisoners, Maathai was hospitalized after pro-government thugs beat her and other women protesters. Following the incident, Moi’s ruling party parliamentarians threatened to mutilate her genitals in order to force Maathai to behave “like women should.” But Wangari Maathai was more determined than ever, and today continues her work for environmental protection, women’s rights, and democratic reform. From one seedling, an organization for empowerment and political participation has grown many strong branches. In 2004 Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her efforts.

In 2005, Maathai was selected to preside over the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council. She was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine and one of the 100 most powerful women by Forbes magazine. She was honored in 2006 with the Legion d’Honneur, France’s highest award.


The Green Belt Movement in Kenya started in 1977 when women from rural areas and urban centers, reflecting on their needs at organized forums, spoke about environmental degradation. They did not have firewood. They needed fruits to cure malnutrition in their children. They needed clean drinking water, but the pesticides and herbicides used on farms to grow cash crops polluted the water.

The women talked about how, a long time ago, they did not have to spend so much time going out to collect firewood, that they lived near the forest. They spoke of how, once, they ate food that sustained their health. Now, while the food does not require much energy to grow, it does not sustain them. The women feel their families are now very weak, cannot resist diseases, and that their bodies are impoverished because of an environment that is degraded.

The National Council of Women, a nongovernmental organization, responded by encouraging them to plant trees. In the beginning it was difficult because the women felt that they had neither the knowledge, the technology, nor the capital to do this. But, we quickly showed them that we did not need all of that to plant trees, which made the tree-planting process a wonderful symbol of hope. Tree-planting empowered these women because it was not a complicated thing. It was something that they could do and see the results of. They could, by their own actions, improve the quality of their lives.

When we said we wanted to plant fifteen million trees, a forester laughed and said we could have as many seedlings as we wanted because he was convinced that we could not plant that many trees. Before too long, he had to withdraw that offer because we were collecting more trees than he could give away free of charge. But we didn’t have money. We decided that we could produce the seedlings ourselves. We would go and collect seeds from the trees, come back and plant them the way women did other seeds: beans, corn, and other grains. And so the women actually developed forestry management techniques, using “appropriate technology” to fit their needs. Here is the basic method: take a pot, put in the soil, and put in the seeds. Put the pot in an elevated position so that the chickens and the goats don’t come and eat the seedlings.

This method worked! Some day we will record all the inventive techniques that the women developed. For example, sometimes trees produce seeds carried by the wind. These germinate in the fields with the first rain. It was very interesting to see a woman cultivating a field with a small container of water. But, she was cultivating weeds! She had learned that among these weeds were also tree seedlings, and that she could pick the seedlings and put them in a container. In the evening, she went home with several hundred seedling trees! These techniques developed by the women became extremely helpful. We planted more than twenty million trees in Kenya alone. In other African countries, we have not kept records.

Trees are alive, so we react to them in very different ways. Quite often, we get attached to a tree, because it gives us food and fodder for our fires. It is such a friendly thing. When you plant a tree and you see it grow, something happens to you. You want to protect it, and you value it. I have seen people really change and look at trees very differently from the way they would in the past. The other thing is that a lot of people do not see that there are no trees until they open their eyes, and realize that the land is naked. They begin to see that while rain can be a blessing, it can also be a curse, because when it comes and you have not protected your soil, it carries the soil away with it! And this is the rich soil in which you should be growing your food. They see the immediate relationship between a person and the environment. It is wonderful to see that transformation, and that is what sustains the movement!

We have started programs in about twenty countries. The main focus is how ordinary people can be mobilized to do something for the environment. It is mainly an education program, and implicit in the action of planting trees is a civic education, a strategy to empower people and to give them a sense of taking their destiny into their own hands, removing their fear, so that they can stand up for themselves and for their environmental rights. The strategy we use is a strategy that we call the “wrong bus syndrome,” a simple analogy to help people conceive what is going on. People come to see us with a lot of problems: they have no food, they are hungry, their water is dirty, their infrastructure has broken down, they do not have water for their animals, they cannot take their children to school. The highest number of problems I have recorded at a sitting of about a hundred people is one hundred and fifty. They really think we are going to solve their problems. I just write them down, but I am not going to do anything about them. I just write them down in order to give the people a feeling of relief and a forum where they can express their problems.

After we list these problems, we ask, “Where do you think these problems come from?” Some people blame the government, fingering the governor or the president or his ministers. Blame is placed on the side that has the power. The people do not think that they, themselves, may be contributing to the problem. So, we use the bus symbol (because it is a very common method of transportation in the country). If you go onto the wrong bus, you end up at the wrong destination. You may be very hungry because you do not have any money. You may, of course, be saved by the person you were going to visit, but you may also be arrested by the police for hanging around and looking like you are lost! You may be mugged-anything can happen to you! We ask the people, “What could possibly make you get on the wrong bus? How can you walk into a bus station and instead of taking the right bus, take the wrong one?” Now, this is a very ordinary experience. The most common reason for people to be on the wrong bus is that they do not know how to read and write. If you are afraid, you can get onto the wrong bus. If you are arrogant, if you think you know it all, you can easily make a mistake and get onto the wrong bus. If you are not mentally alert, not focused. There are many reasons.

After we go through this exercise, we ask them to look at all the problems that they have listed. Why are we hungry? Why are we harassed by the police? We cannot hold meetings without a license. When we look at all of this, we realize that we are in the wrong bus. We have been misinformed for too long. The history of Kenya in the last forty years explains why.

During the Cold War period, our government became very dictatorial. There was only one radio station that gave out controlled information and our country was misinformed. Because the government was so oppressive, fear was instilled in us, and we very easily got onto the wrong bus. We made mistakes and created all of these problems for ourselves. We did not look at the environment and decide to plant trees, so our land was washed away by the rain! The beautiful topsoil was lost. Then, we had made the mistake. Maybe we were not fully focused, suffered from alcoholism, or were not working, but our personal problems had nothing to do with government. We got on the wrong bus and a lot of bad things happened. What we needed to do was to decide to get out, only to make the best of the situation you find yourself in.

You need to take action. You have to inform yourself. And you are willing to inquire; you are willing to learn. That is why you came to the seminar. You want to plant, you want to empower yourself. You have every right to read what you want to read. You want to meet without asking permission. To get off the bus means to control the direction of your own life.

We say to go ahead and start to plant trees. Grow and produce enough food for your family. Get in the food security project, making sure that you plant a lot of indigenous food crops so that we do not lose local biodiversity. We are working in the tropics so the trees grow very fast. In five years, or less, you can have fruit trees, like banana trees. You can go and teach others what you have learned here so that you will have educational outreach in the village. We will support you, so that you can encourage others to get off the bus. You can get a small group of people to protect a park or a forest or an open space near you. Environmental protection is not just about talking. It is also about taking action.

People who live near the forest are among the first to see that the forest is being destroyed. People who live near water resources are the ones who notice that these springs are being interfered with. People who are farmers recognize that the soil is being exposed and carried away by the rains. These are the people who should be the ones to draw attention to these problems at the local and national levels.

And this is the process I have seen with the Green Belt Movement. Women who start to plant trees on their farms influence their neighbors. The neighbors eventually become involved. At the national level, we have been able to draw the attention of the parliament, and even the president, to the need to protect the environment! And now, we see the government reacting to what the environmentalists are saying: that the remaining forest not be degraded, that open spaces not be privatized, and that the forest not be interfered with or privatized. This pressure is coming from ordinary people. We started by empowering women. Then the men joined in because they saw that the women were doing some very positive work.

A lot of men participate in the planting, though not in the nurturing of the seedlings at the nursery as the women do (and do very well). The men see trees as an economic investment. They look thirty years into the future and see that they will have huge trees to sell. Well, nevertheless, it means that the Green Belt Movement enjoys the participation of men, women, and children, which is important. You could very easily have the women planting trees and the men cutting the trees down! Everyone needs to work together and to protect the environment together.

When you start doing this work, you do it with a very pure heart, out of compassion. Listen to the statement from our pamphlet: “The main objective of this organization is to raise the consciousness of our people to the level which moves them to do the right things for the environment because their hearts have been touched and their minds convinced to do the right things, because it is the only logical thing to do.”

The clarity of what you ought to do gives you courage, removes the fear, gives you the courage to ask. There is so much you do not know. And you need to know. And it helps you get your mind focused. Now, you are out of the bus and moving to the right direction. They will see you move with passion, conviction, and persistence. You are very focused. Quite often you threaten people, either people who are on the wrong bus or people who are driving others, because you know they are driving people in the wrong direction and you are asking them not to follow. And now you feel free to tell people, “Believe me, you are all moving in the wrong direction, your leader as well.” Now, of course, a leader does not want to be told this. He certainly does not want to hear the people he is driving being told they need to get out of the bus. This is where the conflict comes in. The leader accuses you of misleading his people, misrepresenting his vision, misrepresenting what he’s trying to do, misrepresenting him.

This is what happened between me and President Moi. In 1989, the president wanted to take over Uhuru Park, the only park left in Nairobi. He was going to build the highest building in Africa, sixty-two stories. Next to the skyscraper he was going to put a four-story statue of himself (so you could pat his head from the fourth floor). All of downtown Nairobi would have had to be restructured.

That building would have been so intimidating, that even if some land in the small park remained, no one would have dared come near it. Very intimidating. So it was completely wrong. It also would have been an economic disaster, as was borrowing money to do it, putting us in greater debt. It was truly a white elephant. But he wanted it because it was a personal aggrandizement.

And so we raised objections, and said this was the only park that we had in the city where people who have no money could come. Not even a policeman could ask you to move; it was an open space. A lot of people joined in and agreed, even those people who were going to invest, who then decided that it was probably not a very good idea.

We staged a protest in the park and were beaten by the police. We were only a small group of women, because, at that time, in 1989, there was a lot of fear. I had taken the matter to court, arguing that this park belonged to the people and that it could not be privatized. The president was only a public trustee, so for him to now go and take what had been entrusted to him, to take it, and privatize it, was criminal. We lost the case, which in the court meant that we had no business raising the issue and complaining about the park. But we won in the end because those who were providing the money withdrew due to the outcry from the public. And members of parliament actually suspended business to discuss the Green Belt Movement and myself, recommending that the Green Belt Movement should be banned as a subversive organization. They did a lot of dirty campaigning to discredit us, including dismissing us as, “a bunch of divorcées and irresponsible women.”

Well, I gave them a piece of my mind that people kept talking about for the rest of the time. “Whatever else you may think about the women who run the Green Belt Movement,” I said, “we are dealing here with privatizing or not privatizing a public park. We are dealing with the rights of the public and the rights of the people. These are the kind of issues that require the anatomy of whatever lies above the neck.” The press loved it. Parliament was just being mean, chauvinistic, and downright dirty. Fortunately, my skin is thick, like an elephant’s. The more they abused and ridiculed me, the more they hardened me. I know I was right, and they were wrong.

A few years later, in 1992, with about ten women whose sons had been detained for demanding more democratic rights for the people, I went back to the same park and declared it “freedom corner.” We stayed there for four days. By the fifth day the government brought in policemen; some of us were very badly beaten. But I will always remember the power of those women. After we were disrupted by the police, I ended up in the hospital, so I didn’t even know what was going on. The other women were herded into cars and forced to go back to where they had come. But the following day, those women came back to Nairobi and tried to locate the others. They knew some were in the hospital, and sent a message that they were waiting for us. They would not go home. Instead, they went to the Anglican provost of All Saint’s Cathedral who told them they could go to the crypt and wait for the other women. Though the provost thought this would be a two-night stay, it lasted for one year. They stayed in that crypt, waiting for Moi to release their sons. The authorities tried everything to get the women to leave. They tried to bribe some of them; intimidated them; even sent some of their sons to persuade their mothers to leave. Several times we were surrounded by armed policemen, who threatened to break the doors of the church and to haul us out. Fortunately they never did, because some of these soldiers were Christians, and we could hear them say they just could not break into the church.