On a December day four years ago, I went to meet Wangari Maathai. I had been asked to interview her as part of a series on exceptional women but even in a list containing such luminaries as Liberia’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Wangari Maathai’s name jumped out. Her story is one that has parallels with the other great name so tragically lost to the world this week – Apple’s Steve Jobs. Like Jobs, Maathai was a visionary who transcended humble roots and went on to do wonderful things. And as Jobs did, she was also one of the few people who can be said to have truly changed the world.
Born in the 1940s to a peasant family in the tiny village of Ihithe in Kenya’s central highlands, Maathai’s career spent defying the odds got off to a flying start when she was sent to primary school at the age of eight. Unusually for girls at that time, she went on to secondary school, graduated top of her class, and was eventually accepted at the University of Kansas, where she pursued – and won – a degree in biology. An MSc from the University of Pittsburgh followed and, finally, a PhD from the University of Nairobi, making her the first woman in East Africa to hold a doctorate.
Increasingly drawn to social and environmental causes, Maathai put her academic career on hold and reinvented herself as a campaigner; a career change that put her on a collision course with Kenya’s venal president, Daniel arap Moi. In the 1970s, she founded the Green Belt Movement, an NGO focused on grass roots conservation and female empowerment. She joined the Kenyan branch of the Red Cross, became its director, and founded the tree-planting business, Envirocare Ltd. A chance meeting with Peggy Snyder, the head of UNIFEM, at a conference enabled her to expand the Green Belt Movement, turning into a pan-African network in the process and training activists from more than 15 countries. But despite honours – at home and abroad – for her work, it soon became clear that Moi’s government didn’t share those sentiments.
Things came to a head, when Maathai opposed the construction of a huge tower in Uhuru Park. Her protests met with mockery and intimidation, with the government describing her as ‘a crazy woman’ in the press. Moi cracked down on the Green Belt Movement but faced with international condemnation, investors in the project pulled out and it was cancelled. Maathai’s running battle with Moi didn’t end there though. In 1992, she was arrested following the discovery that she, along with other pro-democracy activists, had been placed on a government hit list. After two days in the cells, she was released and headed straight to Uhuru Park to join the ongoing pro-democracy protests. Once there, the police, in an attack that drew international criticism, knocked her unconscious. But despite the intimidation, she continued to get involved in protests, most notably against the privatisation of Karura Forest.
In 2002, things changed again, when as part of the National Rainbow Coalition, she stood for election as an MP. The result was historic. Moi’s Kenya African National Union was trounced, with Maathai polling 98.2 percent of the vote in her home constituency and being handed the role of Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. During her stint in Parliament, she was awarded the Nobel Prize – the first African woman and the first environmentalist ever to do so.
By the time I met her, Maathai had been an MP for nearly five years and at 66, was still working hard to make things better for both the planet and its people. Despite the muggy heat, she sailed in from the chaotic Nairobi street; beaming and box fresh. While I mopped sweat from my brow, she sat, cool as a cucumber, resplendent in a brightly patterned dress at the head of the long table, beaming round at everyone. Totally unfazed by the hovering photographer, she walked me round the room, showing off photos of her with Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Bono. White teeth flashing, she smiled and smiled, making me laugh at her anecdotes and bombarding me with questions about my life and family. She was one of the most inspirational people I have ever had the privilege to meet and leaves behind a Kenya transformed for the better by her efforts. A fighter she might have been but it will always be the memory of her overwhelming kindness and sunny charm on a hot Kenyan afternoon that will make me smile when I remember her.
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