Contributed by Zachary Czuprynski
Making a difference is often presumed to be a tremendous task, one which may not seem like a possibility in the first place. But really, it boils down to the little things that ordinary people can do during their ordinary lives. Moreover, it is the combined force of people making small behavioral changes that can, as a whole, really create a significant difference. This philosophy is how Wangari Maathai established herself as a powerful activist – fighting for underrepresented Kenyan women and reforesting several swaths of Kenyan lands simultaneously. To boot, she also was the first woman from East Africa to obtain a PhD and became the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. No doubt, this feat seems to be largely unobtainable for any person, let alone an underrepresented African woman living in a time of political unrest.
Born in 1940, Wangari Maathai was raised in the village of Ihithe in Kenya to a poor Kikuyu family. She was fascinated by the Earth and Mother Nature. Perhaps this is why she relentlessly studied biological science and eventually obtained her doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy. After focusing the first quarter-century of life in academia, Maathai then heavily engaged herself in politics and spoken activism in Kenya. She believed that the majority of her home country’s problems were due to environmental degradation. Wangari combined her activism for women’s rights and environmental conservation by working with the National Council of Women in Kenya to begin planting trees. She recruited unemployed Kenyan women to plant seeds at Karura Forest, also known as the “lungs of Nairobi”, and paid them for their efforts.
“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”
Not long after, Wangari Mathaai marched with her newly formed crew and planted a “belt” of trees from Kenyatta International Conference Centre to Kamukunji Park. This belt became the birth-step of the Green Belt Movement, a UN-supported organization that cultivates tree nurseries throughout Kenya and stipends participants who help plant or keep accurate records of planted seedlings.
Of course, Mathaai’s strong activist presence was met with brutal backlash. She was considered an overeducated, “man-hating” rebel. Death threats were spewed at her. She was arrested over a dozen times, beaten unconscious by police, saw colleagues assassinated, and almost had the Green Belt Movement outlawed. Her response? Plant more trees.
“I knew in my mind I was doing the right thing. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk.”
In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution in sustainable development, democracy, and peace. This was not only the first time an African woman won the prize, but also the first time for an environmentalist to be recognized by this prestigious award.
The combined efforts of Wangari and her Green Belt followers protected the Karura Forest and several other areas in Kenya. In 2005, the Kenya Forests Act protected Kenyan forests from controversial land-grabbings and deforestation. In fact, it is now a popular recreational spot, a park to be enjoyed to its fullest extent. The lungs of Nairobi are unrestrained and can now breathe freely, fully, and deeply. Mathaai left a legacy that can be easily followed when working together. In this manner, we can not only employ a formidable human effort to saving the world, but we can also foster an unbreakable connection with one another.
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”
Let us start inspiring each other to make a change, a small individual change, then together may we save the world.
Photo courtesy of greenbeltmovement.org