Wangari Maathai became very involved in politics, joining the boards of a number of organizations such as the National Council of Women of Kenya. She became the director of the Kenyan Red Cross Society and was a member of the Kenya Association of University Women. In addition she was also a member of the Environment Liason Center which worked closely with the United Nations Environment Program. Through her work with all of these organizations, she was able to determine that the problems of the people, especially the women, was one of deforestation and land erosion.
Her husband, Mwangi Mathai held a seat on the Parliament and campaigned under the promise of finding more jobs for Kenyans who were the victims of growing unemployment. Wangari connected her idea of environment restoration to creating jobs, and created Envirocare Ltd., which paid ordinary citizens to plant trees. Envirocare Ltd. eventually failed because of lack of funds, but through her conversations about her work, the United Nations Environmental Program made it possible to send her to the UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I.
She returned and spoke to the National Council of Women of Kenya, proposing to continue to plant trees and they supported her. On June 7, 1977, marking World Environment Day the NCWK walked in procession from downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji Park and planted 7 trees in honor of community leaders. This was the beginning of the “Greenbelt Movement”
But all was not well. Wangari’s marriage broke apart. Her husband accused her of cheating with a member of the Parliament and he later stated that she was just too educated and too strong minded for a woman and too hard to control. In addition the government was trying to limit the amount of influence of civic organizations such as the NCWK, which Wangari was running to become the chair of at the time. There was a lot of politricks going on, and though Wangari did win eventually, the organization’s funding was cut. They survived by focusing on the environment and she stayed on as chair until 1987.
The Greenbelt Movement was started in earnest when Wilhelm Elsrud, executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society was interested in partnering with the Greenbelt Movement. He arranged for the movement to receive “seed money” and Wangari put forth all of her efforts, hiring a small staff and paying a small stipend to the tree planters. She organized seminars and presentations and escorted delegates to see the work of the Greenbelt Movement. Forty five delegates from 15 African nations came to see the work model so they could implement it in their respective countries. Greenbelt became well organized and well known.
Wangari used the movement to push for democracy. Many were already in the streets protesting against Arap Moi’s government. Wangari was in the mix with the Greenbelt Movement and the government came down hard on her, doing what they could to discredit her. It all came to a boiling point when she heard her name was on a list of people marked for assassination. In fear, she barricaded herself in her own home and was beseiged by the police for three days until they cut the bars and arrested her. When she was freed, she initiated a hunger strike in Uhuru Park for the release of other political prisoners. The police again came for them, knocking Wangari unconscious in the process of her arrest. She was arrested many more times because of the work she was doing. There was so much going on, and now worldwide attention was on Kenya.
As in previous times she ran again for a seat in the Parliament under the National Rainbow Coalition and through much struggle, she finally won as the Coalition was able to break the government of ArapMoi. She was appointed to Assitant Minister of the Ministry for Environment and National Resources in 2002, and served until 2005.
In 2004, Wangari was selected to receive the Nobel Peace Prize as the culmination of all the work and the struggle she endured for the sake of the Kenyan environment and for Kenyan women and by extension, for peace. Very fitting for such a hard working lover of her people.
So again, what does a warrior woman look like? She looks like a giant among women and men! She inspires us with her determination, focus, intelligence and sheer bravery! To Mama Wangari Maathai, a beautiful black woman warrior!