Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

Uppity Women: Wangari Maathai

We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk! –Wangari Maathai

Maathai, A Champion of Peace and the Environment

Wangari Maathai was a woman of renown. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. In 2009 the United Nations Secretary-General named Wangari Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on the environment and climate change because of her deep commitment to the environment. In 2010 Maathai was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group. That same year Professor Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, which was established to safeguard the public land for whose protection she had fought for almost twenty years and, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.

Early Life, A Seed is Planted

Maathai was born in the Nyeri District in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya on April 1, 1940. When she was still a small child, her family moved to the Rift Valley. Her father worked on a farm owned by white land owners. During her childhood, the Mau Mau uprising occurred in which native Kenyans sought independence from the British. Maathai was safe from the violence because she had been sent to a Catholic boarding school at the age of 11 called St. Cecilia’s. Her family members were forced to move from their home to an emergency village in Ihithe.

While Maathai was at St. Cecilia’s she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism. She also a member of the Legion of Mary. The group’s members vowed “to serve God by serving fellow human beings.”

Education First

Maathai was the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D. As colonialism came to an end in East Africa, Kenyan politicians looked for ways to make education available to promising students as an investment in the country’s future. They understood that education was necessary to build peace and prosperity. Senator John F. Kennedy agreed to work with Tom Mboya’s proposals and agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. Airlift Africa was born.

An exemplary student, in 1960 Maathai was given a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in the US through Airlift Africa. She earned her masters of science degree at the University of Pittsburgh in biological sciences. While in Pittsburgh she learned about environmental restoration when local environmentalists advocated to reduce the levels of air pollution in the city.

Returning to Nairobi

Initially, after her masters degree Maathai returned to Nairobi to work as a research assistant to a professor of zoology at the University College of Nairobi. Upon her arrival in Nairobi she discovered her promised position had been given to someone else. Maathai speculated in her memoir titled “Unbowed” that this was due to her gender and tribal affiliations. Rather than beginning work in Nairobi, Maathai went to Munich where she worked as a research assistant in the microanatomy section in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Giessen in Germany. Maathai also continued her studies and obtained her Ph.D in 1971 in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi after studying at the University of Munich.

Because of her academic achievements, Maathai was appointed to several positions of seniority at Nairobi University. Maathai served as the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976. She also taught at the university and held the position of associate professor. During this time period Maathai campaigned for equal benefits for women who worked for the University. She tried to change the academic staff association into a union to negotiate better benefits, but this effort was squashed.

She speaks for the Trees and People

During this time, Maathai noticed that environmental degradation negatively impacted the economic and social fortunes of Kenya. Not only was the deforestation responsible for landslips and droughts, the poor harvests and lack of rainwater in deforested areas created inter-tribal conflict as people fought for meager resources. She became convinced that protecting the environment would promote peace and solve economic problems. Wangari Maathai proposed creating a foundation to plant trees.

Maathai’s ideas led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved planting trees by ordinary people to conserve the environment. Her first tree nursery, Karura Forest, was created. Unfortunately Envirocare ran into funding problems. While her first attempt to create such a foundation was unsuccessful, Maathai’s efforts paid off in that she gained admittance to the 1976 UN conference on human settlements. At the conference, she advocated planting more trees to improve environmental, social and economic conditions.

Green Belt Movement

Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai led a movement to plant trees throughout Kenya which was at first known as the “Save the Land Harambee”. This movement became known as the Green Belt movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow native trees. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere. The Green Belt movement has become a prominent environmental organization supporting the planting and conservation of trees. In her book, “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World” Maathai wrote about, “the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilizing to address their local needs.” She further added,

“We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change.”


In January 1992, Maathai and other pro-democracy activists in Kenya learned they were on a list and targeted to be assassinated. A government sponsored coup was possible. Frightened, but undaunted, the pro-democracy group Maathai belonged to, which was known as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, took the information they had to the international media and called for a general election. As a result one of the members of the group was immediately arrested. Maathai barricaded herself in her house and was besieged for three days. At the end of the three days, the police cut through the bars on Maathai’s windows and arrested her. She and the other pro-democracy advocates were charged with spreading malicious rumors, sedition and treason. They were brought to “trial” and then released on bail.

While on bail, Maathai, along with other protesters, went on hunger strike to protest the government building on Uhuru Park. After a few days the protesters were violently removed. Maathai was hospitalized. The attack on the protesters drew international criticism. The protest grew and continued. Moving to the All Saints Cathedral across from Uhuru Park, the protest continued until the original protesters were all released in early 1993. In her memoir titled “Unbowed” Maathai wrote:

“It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don’t know who to trust. You worry that you, your family, or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassinations or targeted “accidents”, is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.

Praise for Her Activism

While Kenya was still in turmoil, the country was not ignore and neither were Maathai’s efforts. From 1991 through 1992, Maathai received international praise for her activism in Kenya. She received the Goldman Environmental Prize and the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in 1991. In June 1992, during the protests at Uhuru Park, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro despite the Kenyan government’s accusation that Maathai incited women and encouraged them to strip. The Kenyan government wanted her silenced.

Free, Multi-Party Elections

Throughout the 1990s, Wangari Maathai and others protested for peace. Maathai opposed more than once the seizure of public lands by the government who wished to give the lands to private, corporate interests. Once, she and her followers were attacked during such a protest as they planted a tree on public land that the government wished to give to private interests to develop a golf course. While the police refused to arrest the individuals who attacked Maathai and her group, the attack had been filmed and was released to the international press.

During these troubles, Maathai recognized the importance of environmentalism and democracy. Unrelenting and holding on to her vision, Maathai continued on. She planted trees. And she was beaten and arrested. And she planted more trees.

As a result of her efforts, democracy in Kenya grew. Wangari Maathai served first as a vice president for the Movement for Free and Fair Elections and then campaigned for the Kenyan parliament in the 2002 elections as a candidate for the National Rainbow Coalition. Her party won, defeating the Kenyan African National Union.  Maathai was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.

2004 Nobel Peace Prize

After so many years of conflict and perseverance, Wangari Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.


In conclusion, Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011. In her lifetime she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign. She was a founder of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. Ever planting trees, she planted a tree in Uhuru Park with President Obama as he called for the freedom of the press to be respected. She was a peace hero.


I think that we as humans make a great to do about our ability to think and our general intelligence. We are greatly impressed with our own tools and our ability to use resources. Now I am not saying that this isn’t a truly wonderful thing, but I think that we need to use some of our other skills and abilities. I would very much like if we used our ability to communicate and work in groups and our abilities that allow us to understand other people’s perspectives, to be empathetic, and to be compassionate. I would also like it if we used our analytical thinking skills to really examine the choices that we are making as a species.

We have the ability to recognize that we are over populating the planet and using limited resources and fouling our own habitat. We as a group globally can recognize this.

I never buy the arguments that my being a vegetarian is a silly thing because other animals kill, are cruel, and are eaten in part because depending on the species they have more or less capability to emotionally process what their instinctual drives are telling them to do and they don’t have our capacity to recognize our actions, notice their impact, and make a decision among a set of wide ranging choices. Animals just don’t have the capacity to reflect and make choices that we do.

I think whether or not to be a vegetarian is very much a personal decision. Many people have differing ideas on what being vegetarian means also. Some people won’t eat mammals but eat bi-valves and fish. Others won’t eat any creature. Some will drink milk but won’t eat eggs or meat. Some eat only plant food stuffs. Also the reasons why people become vegetarians varies greatly. For some people it is a love of animals. Others it is for political reasons or environmental reasons. For others they are vegetarian because that is how they were raised.

I don’t so much care if other people are vegetarians or not, but I want them to be conscious of what they are eating and how this potentially impacts other creatures and the environment. I want people to examine and really think about what they are doing. This is hard when the muscles of a cow are cut into an unrecognizable form, placed on a styrofoam plate, and wrapped in plastic to be sold in a refrigerator in a grocery store far removed from the commercial slaughterhouse where the cow was stunned and killed.

I am very much concerned about being compassionate to other living creatures and I agree that raising an animal that becomes almost like a pet and then slaughtering it is callous and cruel. So are commercial farms where chickens are fed excessive amounts of hormones and antibiotics to simultaneously make them grow faster and fatter while keeping them kept in too close quarters and not having them get sick. This is cruel. It is also a disaster waiting to happen and the kindness of providing a less cramped living space and better conditions for the animals we raise for food may be a form of enlightened self interest. Consider the rise of mad cow disease and bird flu. I recently read that prions without any genetic material evolve as though they have DNA or RNA. Mad cow was caused by a particular prion. Bird flu came out of un-sanitary conditions in Asia and so far has not spread widely because of the form of the virus and its method of transmission. Hormones in meat and milk may be causing our children to mature earlier.

I very much admire people like Temple Grandin who examined how cows were taken to slaughter and devised a more humane cattle shoot so that the cows came to their death with less fear and panic. This helped the cattle industry, but it also helped the cows.

A friend from my online writing group raised the idea of deer who have been killed on the highway and if they should be eaten. I won’t eat them, but I have made the decision to be a vegetarian. I have very mixed feelings about eating a deer killed on the highway. First, I read an article in Mother Jones two years ago about how something like 40-60% of the species on the planet are predicted to rapidly become extinct within the next fifty years with the current rate of global warming and how this represents potentially one of the great die offs in the long history of the planet. The article talked about habitat destruction as one of the causes that is making the die-off look likely. Roads were sited as a factor in habitat destruction. In part it is because vegetation needs to be cleared to make roads and both the loss of vegetation and the heat retentive properties of asphalt or concrete add to global warming on top of the eventual use of automobiles on those roads. Another piece of it is that roads become barriers that are difficult for species to cross to migrate, get to needed resources, and to get to potential mates. This was something that was listed as being particularly problematic for larger species like predators who need large regions for hunting grounds.

So my response to the question about a deer killed on the side of the road becomes complicated. I think that in the specific instance of a deer killed on the side of the road the deer is dead and gone and will not come back. I personally will not eat it. However, there are people who could use the calories and I think the deer meat should be salvaged for distribution through a food bank or a soup kitchen. Now, as a reassessment of urban planning and resource management, I think more work should be available for people to do at home, less food should be trucked across country, there should be more public transportation, and there should be fewer roads and less cars.

We have the capability to communicate electronically and organize work without everyone being in the same room and yet people still often commute in for work that could be done some percentage of the time from home. This should be utilized more.

Most of the roads that are constructed as part of a national infrastructure serve a couple purposes beyond allowing the citizenry to move freely. They allow the transport and distribution of goods, resources, and troops. Highways are for trucking. If we could transport less food stuff and goods via trucks that would cut down on petroleum usage and emissions and global warming.

Public transport and a better train system in the United States could make fewer roads possible with environmental benefits that would follow.

I am going to take a wee bit of a tangent on this ramble.

Consider the outdoor space around where you live. How much of it is grass? Grass is a colony plant that thrives in wet, cool conditions. Sod farms thrive in early spring and late fall. Most people’s grass looks lush and green in the spring and later in the fall when it is wet. Watering grass is a huge waste of water and fresh water as a resource is in limited supply. To desalinate ocean water is hugely energy expensive. In the heat of summertime, grass to stay green needs to be constantly watered to maintain it. What else do you have as vegetation around your house? Viburnam? Holly? Cedar? I don’t know what is used for landscaping purposes in other parts of the world. Please consider if those plants are indigenous as a first thought. The next thought that I would ask you is if those plants are edible. Most are not and some are poisonous.

Most people have space around where they live that food stuffs could be planted in. Many indigenous and edible plants use less water than grass and are more beautiful than landscaping plants. Alpine strawberries are a perennial that creeps and makes a wonderful ground cover. Flowering kale is gorgeous. Carrots have lovely foliage. Nasturtium are edible. Onions are in the allium family. Basil loves hot weather and thrives without excessive amounts of water and it smells fabulous. We could all easily grow some of our own food in the space around our office buildings, our apartment buildings, and our homes and schools. Further, edible fruit and nut trees could be planted to make edible forest gardens that could make any backyard or park a place where low maintenance, organic “farming” could happen. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used to transport food if we chose to use the resource of the land all around us in a much more thoughtful way. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we all ate seasonally and locally. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we preserved food and didn’t waste as much. We could cut down on the amount of petroleum used if we relied less on agri-business farms that promote mono-cultures and use petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides that require an ever increasing amount of them to maintain the fertility of exhausted soils.

Calories are calories. We have certain nutritional needs, but most people don’t consider that their food consumption entails unconscious decisions about environmental things like the use of the limited resource of petroleum. Most people have very unrealistic ideas about how much protein that they really need in their diets. Also, some animals that are raised for meat and considered more desirable use more resources and are harder on the land. So sheep can be raised in areas that other animals might not be raised in and preserve wetlands, but mutton in the US anyway is considered much less desirable than beef. Cattle raised for meat use quite a lot of resources.

I raise all this not specifically to encourage anyone to become a vegetarian but rather to think about the choices that they make in their day to day lives. Could you eat more healthy, with less impact on the planet, and in a way that reflects your own personal values? Are there other things that you could do to make less of an impact on the planet? I would very much like if we as a species became more reflective about our choices as a group.

For instance in the US, we get tax deductions for the number of children we have. Why not instead of giving a straight out deduction for every child, give a standard deduction for the first child, a lower deduction for the next child, and a penalty for the third child? Or go further and give couples an incentive for not having children if they don’t want to. No woman should feel obligated to be a breeder just because she can. Also having children because others are and it seems meaningless to not make the choice not to breed seems very thoughtless. Children are a huge obligation. Over population is a problem.

More thoughts. Why not put a huge luxury tax on private motor vehicles particularly vehicles that get poor gas mileage? Why not make it mandatory to include inner city farming zones where a city’s food resources are grown? Why not mandate that houses cannot be over a certain size without having solar roof shingles? Why not mandate that all new building construction have geothermal heating/cooling? Why not mandate that the dead are an organic resource and should be returned to the soil? Why not bolster the international internet infrastructure and make communication and the relaying of information easier and more free? Why not heavily tax all garbage collection and begin a program of resource retrieval in known garbage dumps and land fills?

I can think of more. Please add to my list or argue with me.

Have you ever really considered what you eat?

Have you ever really considered what you eat?

Our dietary habits place each of us in a particular niche. Our need for nourishment is one of the things that taxes our environment in terms of not only having arable farmland to produce crops, but also to raise livestock, to transport food stuffs to market, and to process and package food. Simply growing food requires water, fertile soil, and the labor necessary to plant, tend, and harvest crops. Even if one considers that often cattle are raised on land that is not suitable for growing crops and that cattle forage and turn grasses unsuitable for human consumption into nutrient-dense food, it still takes something on the order of two and half pounds of grain and over 400 gallons of water to produce one pound of beef. And these are not statistics taken from one of the environmental or vegetarian activist sites. This is taken from a web site: http://www.beeffrompasturetoplate.org/mythmeatproductioniswasteful.aspx

which is working to dispel the arguments for vegetarianism.

My aim in this post is not so much to make the argument that others should switch to vegetarianism, my aim is to get people to consider what they eat. The consumption of food is necessary for life, but in an age when the production of food stuff to feed the ever burgeoning population of our limited planet may tip our environment over into collapse, when energy needs compete for the same corn as nutritional needs, and when our unconscious and unbeknownst political decisions are entwined in a free for all of wasteful conspicuous consumption– we need to examine and make more informed decisions about how we will feed humanity. Simply unthinkingly going to the large, brightly lit super market many transitions points removed from where food comes from is not an activity that promotes good resource management and the longevity of our species.

I love blueberries. I grew up in Western Michigan where blueberries thrive in the sandy, acidic soil close to Lake Michigan where forests of conifers for centuries dropped their pine needles to compost and create the perfect soil for blueberries. Growing up, I picked blueberries in July and August for money for school clothes. Blueberries are only in season in North America in July and August. I have bought blueberries that were fresh in February. I can tell you that those blueberries were well traveled blueberries and that they were picked before they were ripe and that they were ripened using gas. Did I need to have blueberries in February? No. There was no dire necessity in that decision– just I saw the berries and had the impulse to buy them. Was this a good conscious choice? Not really. In a time period when fossil fuels will be running out and the environment is so incredibly taxed buying out of season blueberries shipped from somewhere in South America is not a good conscious choice.

Small farms have been in demise for the last few decades. Agricultural products in the US are so plentiful that many farmers cannot compete with the large agri-business farms and they are going out of business. More and more farmland has been becoming the suburban sprawl of our urban centers. Some localities are seeing the necessity of preserving local farms and are creating ordinances complete with tax relief or are out and out subsidizing farms. Local farms not only preserve a certain character of the surrounding area, they produce local food stuffs. This is food that does not need to be picked before it is ripe, gassed to ripen, or transported hundreds or thousands of miles. It is food that would be available to the local population if there was a collapse in the global markets or if the transportation of food from other continents became prohibitive or restricted. Eating seasonally and locally produced food helps to keep local farms in business, is environmentally a better choice (for more than the reasons stated here), and is long term savvy.

Tomatoes and zuchini. Have you ever grown zuchini squash? The vines take over the garden and produce more zuchini than you could ever imagine. I remember my mother once upon a time trying to convince me to eat zuchini by making scalloped zuchini. Like scalloped potatoes. In Michigan in late summer, you cannot get rid of the zuchini fast enough. People sneak up on one another’s porches and leave the stuff. Tomatoes also. Tomatoes ripen very suddenly and while one week they are green and hard on the vines– the next you will have bushels of them. I read somewhere that if we just processed all the tomatoes that are grown we could produce some phenomenal amount of tomato sauce, but every year tons of tomatoes go to waste.

How many people have planted anything since they were in Kindergarten and pushed those marigold seeds into the potting soil in a small paper cup? How many people have sprouted bean seeds since they were in elementary school? We make certain choices about what plants we want in our landscapes. Acres of green lawn are considered desirable, but this uses a huge amount of water resources. Grass thrives in cool and wet conditions. What if we planted the areas around our public buildings with indigenous plants that could be used as food? What if we planted fruit and nut trees, berry brambles, perennial herbs and other plants that could be used for food in our yards instead of grass? Imagine all the food that could be produced with the same resources that we are currently using for nothing more than lawns and ornamental plantings of little value beyond aesthetic appeal. What if we all switched are consideration of what should be planted and made it a requirement that every plant planted have multiple reasons for being planted?

What resources have been used to produce the food that you are eating? What unconscious political allegiances are you making with your choice of what you buy and consume?

Social Familiarity with the Spirits of Lake and Mountain

I adore Hayao Miyazaki. His first film that I ever saw was Totoro and I was struck by the very gentle portrayal of the young girls in the movie and their relationship to both their parents and to the nature spirits around them. The children become connected to not only their social environment but to the natural environment. And the natural environment is as real as the people.

This week I have watched Nausica of the Valley of the Wind several times because my children were with me and it is a favorite of my daughter. I love the strong female characters and the environmental message. And the ohms are portrayed as sensitive, thoughtful creatures that can be connected to. The plants and insects are not at war with the humans as is presumed at the beginning of the movie. There is a much more powerful and benign connection between the natural world and the humans.

The first time I saw Princess Monoke, I was deeply taken with the movie. For those of you who know me, I have maintained my email moniker because of this film.

Environmentalism as a concept is something I am somewhat passionate about and, despite my love of driving fast, I try to have as little impact on the earth as I can. I shop mostly resale and try to not own more than I need (books being my biggest downfall– I have much dead tree at my house!). I drive as little as possible– walk or use public transport when I can. I gave up air conditioning and I turn the heat down to 65 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. I wanted to become an environmental architect as a career change at one point before the economic collapse in Michigan.

In the past, I have worked for two different environmental groups as a canvasser, lobbyist, and general educator. When I was growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan one of the chemical companies in the town I grew up in buried chemical refuse in metal drums that corroded and polluted all of the ground water in the area. My grandmother’s restaurant became a distribution point for awhile for bottled water.

Also the town that I lived in had several unique features that were conflicting. An internationally known sewage treatment facility that was one of the first to use crops to filter sewage water and cleanse it. A coal powered electrical plant with a smokestack that belched smoke that became acid rain that came down miles away in another county on their asparagus fields. And a shoreline that showed the natural progression from sandy scrub through pine forest to hardwood forest.

As school children we took field trips and walked the progression and learned about the trees and the habitats.

An environmental consciousness and economic ideas of empowering oneself, learning to do things for oneself, and being a low consumer are deeply embedded in me. As a teenager, I helped my uncle build his house from salvage. My mother routinely knocked out walls in her house when she felt a need to redecorate. To my mind, everyone should know how to fix the things, grow food, make things, and be able to do for themselves. I think this is part of being in touch with the environment– it is the human side of the equation to simply know what we as a species require for our own survival. We are often too disconnected from the soil –buying things that are removed from the earth and displayed in well-lit grocery stores. We are often removed in our thoughts from our own shelter needs– we take it for granted that the heat will come on, the roof will be sound, water will pour from a turned on tap, etc. Typically, we only have thoughts on how we relate to our survival needs when something goes awry.

Ann Arbor as a town is a very lovely, Midwestern, university town. It has several resale shops and a wonderful recycling initiative. There is a program to initiate solar energy usage. It is as a community trying to be “green”. But even amongst the neo-pagan community there feels to me a disconnect from the environment. This comes about in part because everything is safe and tame and the greatest “wild” area is a large park by the Huron River.

I grew up on the sandy beaches and sun bleached dunes of Lake Michigan. I watched the thunderheads roll in off the lake and the lightning illuminate purple and grey clouds. I have seen white capped waves crash with pulverizing repetitive force and watched the pines bend with the wind. I have spent days and weeks removed from other people, living in a tent, boiling water over a fire, and making due with as little as possible.

I am now in the Rockies in Colorado, I am still getting acclimated to the altitude which has left me surprisingly fatigued. But I can sense a different ethic here than in Ann Arbor. The “wild” is outside my door. I have been told that the elk bed in the field outside my window. The garbage dumpster is equipped with a steel pipe to discourage the bears. I have counted several different varieties of rodents. The coyotes yap and howl nightly. There’s a ferocity here and a taken for granted awareness of the environment. Solar panels can be spotted with regularity. Bicyclists cruise up and down the trails. I have a familiarity and respect for the Great Lakes and Lake Michigan in particular. When I get homesick, it is more for the Lake than anyone else. I am in a new community where I have to learn the ways of people out here and get to know individuals. I also have to become acquainted with the mountains.