Imagine a patch of land brimming with rich topsoil.  Within that dark brown earth lies the core of a civilization – its ability to feed itself.  Protect the soil, and you secure the future of your people.  Neglect it, and you condemn the generations that follow to a steadily declining, hard scrabble existence dominated by hunger and want.  

Perhaps the most fundamental way of protecting the soil is with humanity’s ancient ally: the tree.  Its roots hold the soil together and guard against water erosion, its trunk acts as a windbreak to diminish wind erosion, and its leaves protect what grows within the ground from extremes of temperature.  Livestock graze within its shade, and in return for the respite from the elements produce manure that further enriches the soil.  Remove the trees, and you open the soil to attack from multiple directions, a consequence almost elementarily obvious, but which is easily forgotten when a nation is in the depths of a mad dash for prosperity at the hands of quick-growing, land-hungry cash crops.  Communities that have existed harmoniously via traditional farming practices, when exposed to foreign methods and staples, eagerly spring to clear the land of trees to produce as much tea or coffee or fast-growing lumber as they can fit, radically affecting water and soil distribution in the process, silencing once mighty streams and impoverishing the land.  Throughout the first half of the 20th century, colonial Africa was firmly caught in the grasp of this grinding mechanism that traded long term soil health for prosperity in the now.  As the soil grew worse, yields fell, meaning more land needed to be cleared, making the soil worse still, and so on until a generation that never knew hunger watched their children struggle to scrap together the bare necessities of existence.  

The cycle had to stop, but the political situation of mid-century Africa was not conducive to concerted environmental effort.  In Kenya, after independence from Britain was at last won in 1963, government corruption was endemic, political torture an oft-employed means to an end, and forests were merely tracts of land to be awarded to high-ranking officials upon which to build their pleasure domes.  To speak out against the massive economic and governmental forces driving the country into steady depression was to invite sure personal ruin, and not surprisingly most chose to bite their tongues and make do as best they could while the soil washed away and the farms parched in the sun.  But in 1940 a girl was born in the small village of Ihithe who would grow up to repeatedly challenge that government to do better by its citizens and ecology and to found a movement that returned trees to the soil at last after a harrowing half-century.

Wangari Muta, who as Wangari Maathai would gain international renown after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, grew up in a green Kenya of rushing streams, sacred native trees, and a predictable climate cycle that formed the steady pulse of African agriculture.  She divided her early years between her birth village (and the main city of Nyeri that lay nine miles away) and the British farm where her father worked.  She attended the primary school in Ihithe and proved herself such a diligent and capable student that her family shouldered the expense of sending her to a Catholic boarding school and subsequent Catholic high school where she was to spend her adolescence learning English, science, and religion while outside, the Mau Mau Revolution was dividing Kenya violently between those who supported (or at least were afraid of challenging) the British standard quo, and those willing to shed blood to compel the British to leave.  While ordinary Kenyans were caught between the oppressive police measures of the British government and the bloody tactics of the revolutionary movement, Wangari developed her love of learning in relative peace and security, and discovered in herself a deep love of chemistry and biology, one which she was determined to bring to East Africa’s most prestigious university, Makerere in Uganda.

As it so happened, her graduation coincided with a new initiative from an American senator by the name of John F. Kennedy who wanted to renew Africa’s political life by opening up the American education system to a few hundred eager students.  Popularly known as the Kennedy Airlift (an homage to the Berlin Airlift of a decade before), this program ran from 1959 to 1963 and gave new educational opportunities to 800 individuals, among them Wangari Muta.  In 1960 she arrived to experience the best education that Atchison, Kansas had to offer in the form of Mount St. Scholastica College, yet another Catholic institution, but her work stood out enough to earn her a spot at the University of Pittsburgh from 1964 to 1966 where she worked on the development and role of the pineal gland before receiving an offer to return to Kenya and join the department of zoology at the University College of Nairobi.  

By working odd jobs she had earned enough money to live, but not nearly enough to travel back home, so her return to Kenya was the first time she had seen her family since leaving in 1960 and, joyous occasion though it was, the homecoming was soon marred by her first real exposure to academic gender prejudice.  Reporting to the university for work, she was told that her position had been given away to somebody else and that the letter inviting her to join the department was not binding.  As it happened, another position in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy was available, and this was to serve as her base of operations for the hard decades to come.

In 1966 she married Mwangi Mathai.  From that point, the pace of life was frantic, as she juggled her university responsibilities, her traditional household role, motherhood, helping her husband campaign for political office, and her growing role outside the university in different volunteer capacities.  In the process, several streams began to converge – her work with livestock studies took her out to the country where she saw rivers clogged with silt from soil erosion, while her activity with the National Council of Women of Kenya brought her attention to the malnutrition that was beginning to affect communities very like those she grew up in.  

She began investigating the root causes of Kenya’s growing social problems and noted that most came down to issues of environment.  Removing native trees to plant fast growing European varieties made money, but allowed for soil loss which clogged rivers which in turn choked communities.  Cleared forests meant a dearth of available firewood, causing women to turn to processed foods which took less energy to cook, but which also proved poor in nutrients.  

No matter where you looked, the answer appeared to be the restoration of not only the tumbling great forests, but of local tree belts in traditional villages – swaths of trees that could break the air currents, provide shade for animals and humans, hold the soil together, provide firewood, and enrich the earth below.  She took it upon herself to form Envirocare, Ltd, a venture which attempted to solve both the tree problem and the urban employment problem by hiring the unemployed to plant trees on the estates of the wealthy.  

It did not go well.  Turns out, the absurdly wealthy don’t particularly take to groups of unemployed strangers roaming over their property planting stuff.  It was not until 1977, then, that the Green Belt Movement began in earnest when Mathai planted seven trees in Kamukunji Park on World Environment Day.  Those seven trees began the movement which continues to this day.  Over fifty-one million trees across the African continent and beyond have been planted, but the logistics took some time to work out.  

You can’t just go to an area, plant some seedlings, take some pictures, and then leave in triumph.  Without a community to care for the young trees, they are doomed from the moment they are planted.  So the Green Belt Movement developed a ten step system whereby women in local communities gathered their own seeds, raised their own saplings, and planted and cared for them, earning money for their efforts only after their trees were established and thriving.  The communities directed these nurseries from within, rather than having photo opportunities imposed on them from without, and that bit of self-direction, it turned out, made all the difference.

What it did not make, however, was political friends.  Every time the government attempted to reward its wealthy hangers-on with swaths of national forest, the Green Belt Movement was there to alert the press and international community to what was being done.  Wangari Mathai, now Wangari Maathai after an acrimonious and very public divorce from her husband, was repeatedly and viciously targeted by the government, and any association she belonged to was hampered in any way the bureaucracy could conceive.  She was arrested on multiple occasions, had her house besieged by armed police, was beaten by a group of hired thugs outside one of the government’s more egregious misuses of public land, and barred from virtually all manner of employment, leading to long hard years of poverty and fear as she continued to fight for the ecology of her homeland and the political freedom of her people. 

While the government used every means at its disposal to splinter her organizations and deprive them of funding, lodgings, and freedom of expression, she reached out to the international community, whose influence proved decisive on more than one occasion for halting President Moi’s flights of self-aggrandizing tyranny and cronyism.  Each award she received from a foreign government or institution was one more layer of protection for herself and one more reason for the government to demonize her in the official press as a divorced woman (horror of horrors!) who was more concerned with gaining international acclaim than staying at home and doing her obedient duty.  Every degradation that officialdom could imagine was visited upon her, not only to silence her (which did not work), but also to show the rest of Kenya’s women the cost of independent dissent.

Ultimately, however, the government’s actions were self-defeating.  The example of a woman suffering imprisonment and censure not on her own behalf, but on the behalf of political prisoners, rural mothers, the native forests of Africa, and the very concept of representative democracy, far from discouraging environmental and political dissent, inspired it.  After decades of silently bearing the weight of their corrupt and oppressive government, the Kenyan people rose up.  In 1991 Kenya permitted the existence of multiple political parties and by 2002 the Moi administration was removed from power after twenty four years, while Maathai herself was elected to Parliament on a wave of reform sentiment. 

Maathai describes herself not as a particularly courageous human being, but as one who sees what must be done and refuses to shy away from doing it, regardless of the consequences for herself.  When the government threatened to clear a vast tract of the people’s Uhuru Park in 1989, she marshaled her forces to protest the act and was harangued as an ignorant divorcee in Parliament.  When a group of mothers of political prisoners needed her help to broadcast their cause, she gave it, and participated in their hunger strike in 1992 that was forcibly broken up by the police.  Time and again, when action has sought its actor, Wangari Maathai has, without reservation or any sense of self-consideration, stepped into that role, and so it was hardly a surprise, though the award had never been given to an environmentalist before, that the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to her at last in 2004.

Since her return to Kenya in 1966, Maathai has fought the gender discrimination of the academic system (a solid decade of her life was spent, at least in part, attempting to obtain equal pay for men and women at the University of Nairobi), the lingering after-effects of European colonialism, and the tyrannical impulses of the opportunists who slipped into power in the long vacuum between the British Empire and true democracy.  She has been beaten and impoverished, mocked and harassed, but has also lived to see millions of trees planted, revitalizing villages and through those villages, a nation.  She has seen her people transformed from cowering subjects to proud political actors, and the women of Kenya assert their right to speak the full content of their minds and live the full measure of their potentials.  There is legacy enough there for several lifetimes, and proof that just as a single tree can begin the process of transforming a landscape, a single person, however humbly born, can become the catalyst for continental and world change.

Photos courtesy of Green Belt Movement, published on Women You Should Know with express permission.


FURTHER READING:  Maathai’s memoir, Unbowed, is a wonderful recollection of the Kenya that was, and a disturbing account of the police state it became, and the story of Maathai finding her feet and fighting off each challenge and hardship hurled in her way by a government’s frothing rage at her impudence is powerful stuff.  She has written many other books as well outlining a map to African recovery, and one about the Green Movement in particular (2003).  You can see her Nobel Prize acceptance speech here.  

For more awesome Women in Science, check out the archive and my books, Illustrated Women in Science – Volume 12 and 3