The 1940’s were hard! reading about it is hard enough, picture living through it- stories of horror are bound. The world is on the brink of another global war and economies are collapsing. In the midst of all these, some countries especially in Africa, are coursing fiercely towards independence. Something like a dystopian movie it seems in hindsight.
Characteristic of movies it follows also, tragedy is often watered down by albeit scant, hints of joy and delight.
The world’s misfortunes at the time were in a sense, diluted by the birth of a Kenyan girl whose life would go on to be the stuff of legend and a source of inspiration for generations of girls in Africa and beyond
In the remote village of Ihithe in the then Nyeri district in Kenya’s central highlands, the sun rose on 11th September 1940 and the world was gifted with Wangari Maathai- ‘The Queen of Green’
Wangari was a strikingly intelligent young girl and couldn’t help but show it! She proved this a number of times. First, by her stellar performance at St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School where she later graduated top of her class in 1956.
Further, upon entering high school, she was among a select group of 300 girls sponsored to study in the United States. It was at Mount St. Scholastica College, that her journey into the realm of scholars began.
Worth mention probably was, at the time, the unfortunate gender based discrimination amongst women, African women especially, bore the brunt being notoriously tethered to custom and tradition,’ a woman’s place is in the kitchen’ and all.
Unsurmountable hurdles it was for most women, not for her, not Wangari Maathai. She went on to obtain her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology and subsequently, in the University of Pittsburg, a Masters in the Biological Sciences.
Not long after, she was back in Kenya; an educated young lady, ready to be herself. Delving ever so enthusiastically back into the bottomless waters of academia, Madam Maathai, unsurprisingly perused a PhD in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi. The first woman truthfully, in the whole of East and Central Africa to achieve such fetes. In 1971 she became Prof. Wangari Maathai.
An opportunity to pass down her knowledge arose and she seized it by lecturing veterinary anatomy and eventually becoming chair of the Department of Veterinary at the University of Nairobi.
Now at the helm, the halls of academia served as the perfect microphone through which she strongly voiced her sentiments on women’s rights appropriately even, serving as an active member and eventually, as chair National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).
It was during her time at the NCWK also, that Prof. Maathai coined the idea of planting trees to combat deforestation and broadly, environmental degradation. This led to the fitting establishment of the Green Belt Movement. To date, according to UNESCO, the non-governmental organisation has planted over 50million trees.
It so follows that, for a tree to reach heaven, it is said, its roots must as well reach hell. Similarly, Wangari Maathai’s environmental advocacy was riddled with opposition often pitting her against the Kenyan Government. Her relentless actions to safe guard the environment saw her beat, jailed, and harassed.
It was her stern stance in the face of these atrocities that propelled both herself along with the Green Belt Movement to national and global admiration. So much as to eventually getting elected to parliament in Kenya’s landmark multiparty elections in 2002. Doubling also, at one time, as the assistant minister in the Ministry of Environment and Natural resources.
Prof. Wangari Maathai’s larger than life reputation was cemented in the history books as she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (2004) for her fierce yet admirable struggle for democracy, women’s rights and most notably environmental preservation. Earth Times magazine even elected her as one of 100 people in the world to make visible change in the environmental arena.
As a Nobel Peace Prize laureate till her unfortunate passing in 2011 Prof Wangari Maathai continued the good work, restoring mother earth’s green, while at the same time touching millions of lives. Her legacy persists to this day via the Green Belt Movement, a commanding voice in the environmental conservation spheres.
Google has even honoured this legendary woman by creatively adding her beautiful face and infectious smile on the google doodle for the entire world to see.