If you happen to be one of the few people who set your CNN homepage to the international version, listen to NPR or read news on the BBC, you probably found out that Wangari Maathai passed away from cancer on Sunday at the age of 71. Unfortunately not many people on this side of the world got a chance to know about this incredible woman while she was alive; I will reluctantly admit I was one of those people.
Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She received this honor in 2004 for her work advocating for environmental protection policies. She focused on the link that sustainable development had with the promotion of democracy and peace. Maathai argued that environmental degradation and un-monitored development were factors that contributed to a growing amount of poverty in Africa.
As part of her advocacy work, she founded the Green Belt Movement. According the non-profit organization’s website, it
“is one of the most prominent women’s civil society organizations, based in Kenya, advocating for human rights and supporting good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. Its mission is to empower communities worldwide to protect the environment and to promote good governance and cultures of peace.”
One of the most important projects within the Green Belt Movement that Maathai started was a tree-planting initiative. This project has resulted in 40 million trees freshly-planted across the African continent slowing down the speed of soil erosion and protecting biodiversity.
In a quotation on the website, Maathai argues “you cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that the must protect them.”
During African colonization, Maathai was able to secure a scholarship to study biology in the United States before receiving her master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
How many times do we hear about African women defying the odds and advocating for social change during a time when African men didn’t even have control over their own governments? Never. This begs the question: Why? How come we don’t hear about these achievements that are happening every day – and have happened for centuries — on the African continent?
We’re taught that Africa, and the individual countries within, can’t survive without support from Western governments. We’re groomed to think that success stories happen in Africa because of foreign involvement. Even when we do hear African initiated success stories, we have feelings of cognitive dissonance and we’re forced to reconcile the odd feelings by justifying them as a one-time occurrence.
We should recognize that stories like this aren’t a one-time occurrence. Rich stories like this one have materialized in the past, are developing right now, and will continue to unfold in the future.
Wangari Maathai’s legacy will live on through the lives she touched and the women she inspired.