Wangari Maathai has chalked up many firsts in her 70 years. There was the time she became the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate; the time she planted her first tree nursery, and the time she became the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize. There was also the first time she was beaten up; the first time she was jailed; the first time she was disqualified from running for political office, and the first time her environmental work was dismissed as that of a “mad divorcee”.
These tribulations might be behind her now, and organisations around the world might be lauding her work promoting the greening of Africa, but Maathai is not one to rest on her laurels. She is still busy lobbying politicians across the continent to pay more than lip service to environmental causes, and is establishing an institute at the University of Nairobi to propagate the community development ideas that have earned her international acclaim.
It is a sweet turnaround for a woman who was edged out of her teaching position at that same university three decades ago, partly because her ambition was considered suspicious for someone of her gender.
“I’m back at my university and now they’re very happy to see me,” Maathai laughs, sitting in the café of a boutique hotel in midtown Manhattan last month, as she prepared to attend the latest United Nations climate change conference in Mexico.
Dressed in a bright purple and orange Kenyan dress and headband, the septuagenarian sparkles as she speaks about her life’s work. Her outfit and her joie de vivre are a welcome relief from the grey-suited monotony that emanates from the United Nations just a few blocks east.
Maathai won the Nobel peace prize in 2004 for her work establishing the Green Belt Movement. This Nairobi-based organisation has planted more than 40 million trees on community lands across Africa, an effort aimed at stopping environmental degradation – and the conflict that often ensues over natural resources. The idea sprang from her observation in the 1970s that deforestation and soil erosion were not just hurting her country’s environment, but were worsening the plight of women.
Maathai was spurred on by her experiences in the US in the 1960s, where she studied science in Pennsylvania as part of the “Kennedy airlift” educational programme that also brought president Barack Obama’s father to America. “Something called the women’s movement was happening. Women were mobilising, talking about women’s liberation and all that,” she recalls, describing how this got her thinking about what she could do for women in her own country. “Women from the countryside [in Kenya] were talking about how they did not have enough food because their land had been converted into cash crops – mostly coffee – so they had to buy their food,” Maathai says. “And because they no longer had trees on their land, they had to go a long way for firewood, so they were tending to cook food that was processed and cooked faster, but was usually not nutritious. Also, they said the water was polluted because people were using fertiliser to grow cash crops.”
This sparked an idea: if the women planted trees on their plots, she realised, it would not only provide firewood but protect the soil. Before long, she had persuaded women to plant indigenous trees such as acacias and crotons around their plots – the original “green belts”. But she also declared war on the government-run coffee industry that saw farmers left with only the dregs of the profits, and on the timber industry that favoured fast-growing conifer and eucalyptus trees, imported by the British during colonial times, over native ones.
“As I worked with the women, I started seeing that not only were the rivers being polluted, but they were also losing volume, because these commercial timber plantations in the forests were depositing a lot of soil in the water. So we were losing soil and we were losing water,” she says. “This was a violation of our rights.”
Initially, her efforts were not well received – by either the government or by her husband, member of parliament Mwangi Mathai. Complaining that she was too strong-minded and that he was unable to control her, Mwangi Mathai filed for divorce in 1979. When the judge granted the application, Maathai derided him as incompetent, earning herself a six-month prison sentence, of which she served three days. After her lawyer secured her release, Maathai’s ex-husband persuaded the court to order that she stop using his surname. She got the last laugh by adding an “a”.
“Sometimes I wonder how I would have evolved had I remained married to this man. What would I have been? For sure, he would never have allowed me to do what I have done,” she says, laughing at the idea that she could ever have remained under the thumb. “Society had not yet seen a woman, a very vocal and assertive woman, with my kind of qualifications. As we all know, sometimes when a woman becomes very successful, the man is under pressure to show that he is not being affected by her, or influenced by her. Unfortunately, sometimes men are not able to put up with that pressure, so they have to go.”
Her troubles did not end there, however.
In 1982, Maathai decided to run for the parliamentary seat in her home region of Nyeri. The courts declared she was ineligible to run because of a technicality, which Maathai believed was politically motivated. She was then denied her academic job back, a move that also saw her evicted, because she lived in university housing. Still, she was not dissuaded.
“I was young, I was energetic, I was idealistic, and I did not see why I should stop. I was so determined to do the right thing that I became more committed and more determined. I knew it was a game they were playing,” she says, “and sooner or later they would have to stop that game.”
Two decades of general harassment followed, as Maathai lobbied against president Daniel arap Moi’s government, including opposing its plans to build a 60-storey government building in the middle of Uhuru Park, Nairobi’s equivalent of Hyde Park. Her protests saw her beaten and jailed, and landed her on an assassination hit list in the early 1990s. Moi described Maathai as a “mad woman” and parliament derided her Green Belt Movement, which was established as a formal organisation in 1986, as “a bunch of divorcees”.
“I think this is something that many women face, because in any society that is male dominated, women are not supposed to be able to think independently and to have good ideas,” she says, taking another sip of coffee. “If you don’t have a man beside you who would be assumed to be the source of the wisdom, you’re really going to be bashed right and left. That’s what I experienced for decades.”
Eventually, however, Maathai’s efforts began to be noticed. She started collecting awards in the late 1990s, culminating in the Nobel in 2004, a prize she calls “the best thing that could have happened to me. Not only did it validate what I had been doing, it also gave me an extraordinary international stage where I could explain to the people these issues,” she says. “I was able to explain to so many people how I came to the realisation that many, many conflicts – whether they are local or international – are conflicts over competition for resources: the land, the water, the minerals.”
It did, however, lead to some unwelcome attention. Maathai caused controversy when she was quoted as saying that HIV/Aids was “deliberately created by western scientists to decimate the African population”. Maathai says she was completely misrepresented, referring to the clarification she later posted on her website: “For too long, discussing HIV/Aids in our communities has been taboo. This must end … We must be frank about how the HIV virus spreads through unprotected sex or intravenous drug use, and how poverty and inequality between women and men are the major driving forces of the pandemic in Africa.” Now, she adds: “One of the disadvantages of being a Nobel laureate is that once people know that whatever you say gets attention, so many of them want to attach their issues to you.”
Since winning the Nobel peace prize, Maathai has been trying to educate other African leaders about the negative impact that deforestation and erosion will have on the continent, adding that politicians are still acting as if Africa has unlimited supplies of forest, water and soil.
“This has to stop,” she says. “Africa is very fragile, partly because we have a desert in the north that has been expanding as far back as we can remember, and we have the Kalahari in the south-west, which is also moving northwards. So we need to protect the Congo forest, which is really the buffer between the two deserts.” This forest not only controls the climate and rainfall patterns in Africa, but also the global climate, in a similar way to the Amazon and the south-east Asian mountains.
Maathai believes that it is political leadership that has been lacking in Africa, not the money to achieve these goals. “Politicians come here to the UN and say all these things and that they commit to these goals, but it should not be just rhetoric, it should be practical,” she says, waving her hand in the direction of the building down the road. “When they go home they must apply it.”
In Kenya, that means teaching farmers and foresters about the need to look after soil and water quality. But talking about such things can be like “speaking Greek”, Maathai says, which is why she is establishing the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies at the University of Nairobi. “It will mainly be a forum for students who want to learn about a holistic approach to community development, especially among under-developed communities where people are not highly educated, are not literate, but are on the land and need to learn how to use those resources better,” she says.
She admires agricultural universities in the American Midwest that have been able to transform farming practices by applying their teachings. She recently visited a university in North Carolina where academics have given local farmers the latest information on using the land.
As she embarks on her “latest pet project”, Maathai pauses to reflect on the transformation in the status of women in Africa since she started out on her quest almost 50 years ago.
“We have gone from a time when people were surprised that a woman had a bachelor’s degree, to now – when they have PhDs, they are professors, they are judges, they are ministers of government. This really is a very big transformation that I have seen within my own lifetime,” she says. “And it is therefore not surprising that a woman like [Ellen] Johnson-Sirleaf realised the dream of many women and became the president of Liberia. That alone gives so many girls so much inspiration.
“I still hear young women say that they don’t want the men they are marrying to know that they have money, because men feel threatened,” she says. “Also, women are afraid of getting a big job, being a manager, and taking home a cheque that is bigger than [their] husband’s.”
Still, Maathai is encouraged by Kenya’s new constitution, which was finally introduced in August after more than 20 years in the drafting. She describes it as “a very, very pro-woman constitution”, which protects women at home and gives them quotas for jobs, for representation in parliament and in local authorities.
“It’s so progressive. I hope women take advantage of it,” she says, shortly before she wanders out into Manhattan with her daughter Wanjira, the international liaison officer for the Green Belt Movement, and 15-month-old granddaughter Ruth, who will one day be one of those women.
Anna Fifield is the FT’s US political correspondent