Wangari Maathai: A Remembrance
When Wangari Maathai heard that I was going to be in Cairo representing the Sierra Club at the 1994 U.N. Conference on Population and Development, she encouraged me to travel south to Kenya to visit the Green Belt Movement since I was “going to be in the neighborhood.” I had no idea at the time just how life changing that single trip would be.
Not only did Wangari put me up in her guest room, she served as my personal tour guide, taking me to plant trees in a Green Belt Movement community, then to Lake Nukuru to see the flamingos and a couple of enormous black rhinos (a recent gift to Kenya from South Africa). On the winding, rough roads through the Rift Valley, she shared her vision for a green and prosperous Kenya.
Wangari’s work with the Green Belt Movement resonated with me because it didn’t seem so remote from the work of the Sierra Club. Only while we were protecting old trees, they were planting new ones. But in planting those trees and arranging for women to receive a very small payment for caring for them, Wangari gave communities hope that they could improve their lives. In doing so she built a following. She built a movement. She developed a political constituency that scared the hell out of the country’s authoritarian rulers.
When Wangari and her legions of followers opposed government cronyism, land grabbing, and forest destruction, the response was swift and violent. She was beaten and jailed many times. She came close to losing her life on many occasions for leading women into parks or forests to protect them from the government and private developers. During one tragic episode I received an urgent phone call from Wangari’s daughter Wanjira who was living in Atlanta at the time and studying at Emory University. Wanjira explained the police, unable to break down her mother’s front door, had physically extracted Wangari though a window, leaving her with cuts, bruises and an injured back, and then dumped her in a cold, bare jail cell with no mattress.
I took Michael Fisher, the Sierra Club’s Executive Director at the time, to meet with Kenyan Ambassador to the United States Dennis Afande to express our indignation. The ambassador responded that his government's problem with Wangari Maathai was not her tree planting, but that her tree planting had become political. You can imagine our response.
Wangari often said that “you cannot protect the environment unless your empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.” This message resonated around the world; it is why she was so loved.
--Stephen Mills worked for the Sierra Club’s International Programs for 22 years. In May this year he was selected by Wangari Maathai to be the Green Belt Movement’s lead representative in the United States.
--Photo courtesy of the Green Belt Movement