“The tree is living, it is beautiful, it inspires, it grow upwards, it gives shade, it brings back life, and so the tree becomes a symbol of hope.” ― Wangari Maathai Photograph: Sandi Knight
This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is #BeBoldForChange. A woman who embodied this, long before being bold was acceptable, was Wangari Maathai. She was a fearless visionary who faced problems head-on and implemented solutions with determination, grit and heart.
From the first time I heard of Wangari Maathai, her story resonated with me. Born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, in 1940, this self-proclaimed “child of the soil” loved the feeling of contentment she experienced when working on the land alongside her mother. She had a deep connection with the environment, with trees and with people which led her to a host of achievements in her 71 years.
She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first female head of a university department in Kenya and the first African woman and first environmentalist to become a Nobel laureate. Wangari Maathai was an elected member of Parliament in Kenya and assistant Minister of Environment. She authored four books. Her list of credits and accomplishments is lengthy but did not come without significant struggle. Over the years she was arrested, jailed and beaten, but she never gave up on her beliefs. Until her passing in 2011, she continued to strive for improvements in environmental conservation, democracy and human rights.
Members of the Green Belt Movement prepare seedlings. Photograph: Wendy Stone/Reuters
The world became much more aware of Professor Maathai in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots, non-governmental organization which she founded in 1977. After hearing rural women of Kenya speak of their struggles to find firewood and water, of the loss of topsoil, of malnutrition diseases in their children, she understood that deforestation was connected to it all. Her response, “Why not plant trees?” And so, despite ridicule and many hurdles, her mission began.
The women were paid a small fee to plant and care for trees. Earning an income, while protecting and preserving their land and resources improved their lives, but also ensured a better future. Professor Maathai understood by empowering these women to break the cycle, change would reverberate in the world around them. She understood the connection between the environment and social, economic and political issues, “…not only were we planting trees, but we were planting seeds of peace, seeds for democracy, seeds for respect for human rights.”
The Green Belt Movement’s mission is to “strive for better environmental management, community empowerment, and livelihood improvement using tree-planting as an entry point.” Through this program, more than 51 million trees have been planted throughout Kenya. The growth and impact of this movement since 1977 is astounding.
International Women’s Day is a time to honour and remember exceptional women like Wangari Maathai. Her inspiring story reminds us that being bold starts one step at a time. Stand up for what you believe in. Implement solutions. Empower yourself and those around you. Move forward together, build momentum and change will happen.
Wangari Maathai pictured in Kiriti, Kenya, in 2004. Photograph: Micheline Pelletier/Corbis
“Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.” ― Wangari Maathai
So today let us celebrate achievements of those who came before us. Let us continue to support, encourage and empower one another, regardless of occupation, status or race. Rejoice in, and value everyday contributions.
Collectively, we can make a difference and continue to improve the world. #BeBoldForChange
“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
Why not share Wangari Maathai’s story with the younger women in your life through this book? “Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa”