I heard about this incredible lady the day she died in 2011. I think I was leaving under the rock these past years. Anyway, having read all the wonderful obituary about her, I had to read her biography. But first, a word about the author.
Prof. Maathai, as she was affectionately referred to, is a Kenyan born environmentalist, political activist and author. She died on september 2011 after battling cancer for several years. She was educated in the USA and in Kenya. Wangari Maathai founded in the late 1970s the Green Belt Movement, an environmental grassroot movement focused on planting trees and on women’s rights. She was elected a member of parliament in 2002 and in 2003 she became assistant-minister on environmental issues. In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She is the author of Unbowed, her memoir and The Challenge for Africa where she offered a refreshingly unique perspective on the challenges facing Africa and the need for a moral revolution among Africans themselves. She is the first African woman to earn a doctorate in Easter and Central Africa, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel peace prize.
When I was reading her story I was overwhelmed by the struggle she went through. But more importantly, I was overwhelmed by her courage and her determination. Today, I can stand tall and proclaimed to the world that Ms Maathai is African. She was born during the occupation of Kenya by Britain, so we get to learn a lot about life in colonial Africa and about the traditions and customs of the Kikuyu ethnic group. The other themes in the book are the Mau-Mau rebellion, African soldiers, life in rural Kenya before and during colonization, Christianization of indigenous people, independence of colonies, Kenya’s politics, gender issues in Kenya and of course environmental issues.
The whole story of Prof Maathai is inspiring, every little piece of it. I couldn’t possibly talk about everything here.So I will touch on what I think are the most inspiring parts. The one story that still baffles me is how she starts school. Actually, Ms Maathai attend school because one of her cousin asked why she was not going to school. Since there was no reason, she was allowed to go to school. That single question changed her life and the lives of millions of people around the world. The people who ended reading her books, being inspired by her and following her movement.
In the beginning of her schooling year, Kiswahili was used at the language of instruction but when she was in secondary school, English was widely adopted as the only language of instruction. Prof. Maathai describes some of the methods used by teachers to force students to stop speaking their mother tongue. It is a shame, really. Because, even nowadays people refused to speak their mother tongue and stick to the language of the settlers in order to impress others. This not an African thing, it is actually a colonized thing, because one of my Indian friend does the same. Never speak your mother tongue when you are trying to impress someone, it makes you appeared backward or so they think. Or at least, if you do then you must speak with an accent to try to prove that you are more fluent in English/French than in your dialect.
One of the drawbacks of being in a catholic school was that students were submitted to the British propaganda. Ms Maathai talked about how she believed that the Mau-Mau fighters were terrorists that must be flushed at all cost.
She also talked about the astonishing opportunity that arose for her to continue her studies in the USA. When reading this book, one has the feeling that this lady is very lucky, she always seems to be at the right place at the right moment. But I prefer to call it destiny. It is clear to me that she was destined to be the person she became.
Ms Maathai also talked about the great excitement when Kenya became independent. One thing that surprised me was the tension that exists between ethnic groups even then. The first time it is mentioned in the book is in 1969 and ever since I don’t think it has gone away. (Think of the 2007 post-elections violence.)
It is also important to point out that Prof. Maathai received a Doctorate in biology. She became involved on the environment issues when volunteering for an NGO. The environment theme is inherent in the book, it is mentioned all the time. When she was growing up, when she went to boarding school, when she was doing her postdoctoral research on livestock….
It is widely known and accepted that climate change has severely affected Africa. And that, it is the region that will be the most affected in the future. But in the 1970s, Prof. Maathai could already see it. People and livestock were looking undernourished. Natural forest was being replaced by plantation of coffee and timber. These elements constitute the basis under which the green belt movement was born.Today, The movement is still going strong without Prof Maathai. A great part of the book is dedicated to the birth of the movement and the way it spread at the grassroot level throughout Kenya. Being an environmentalist also means that Prof Maathai had to oppose the government on some projects that involved destroying natural parks and indigenous forest.
As it is often the case for women who are overachievers, she had to sacrifice a lot in her personal life.
Today , April 1, was the day she was born. Commemorations will be organized all over the world to celebrate her life.
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