“Wangari Maathai’s compelling life story is inextricably linked with the social and political changes that so much of Africa has been through since the idea of throwing off European colonialism began to gain traction shortly after World War II.
Her unique insight was that the lives of Kenyans – and, by extension, of people in many other developing countries – would be made better if economic and social progress went hand in hand with environmental protection.
The Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, has planted an estimated 45 million trees around Kenya.
The straightforward environmental benefits of that would have been important enough on their own in a country whose population has grown more than 10-fold over the last century, creating huge pressure on land and water.
But what made the movement more remarkable was that it was also conceived as a source of employment in rural areas, and a way to give new skills to women who regularly came second to men in terms of power, education, nutrition and much else.
Now, she has succumbed to a battle with cancer. But if cancer was new to her, battle was definitely not; it was a way of life.
Opposing a major government-backed development in Nairobi, she was labelled a “crazy woman”; it was suggested that she should behave like a good African woman and do as she was told.
Her former husband made similar comments when suing for divorce: she was strong-willed, and could not be controlled.
This alone gives some idea of the battles Dr Maathai fought in the politically active phase of her life, which encompassed and indeed wove together the ideals of helping Kenya develop sustainably and helping Kenyan women achieve equality…”