United Nations Messenger Of Peace Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai
Photo Courtesy: www.mifotografia.com/Green Belt Movement.
A United Nations Messenger of Peace, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Her list of on-ground achievements, far outnumber the scores of awards she has received from world leaders. What a full life this brave woman has led, often fighting chauvinism and discrimination both at home and overseas as she fought for justice for her people… ordinary pastoralists and herders of Kenya and, indeed, the unempowered across the globe. Bittu Sahgal writes with admiration about a woman who tried to change the face of the world, leading by example by transforming her own country, Kenya.
On a January day in 2010, a woman stood quietly behind me in a long queue inching its way forward through the security cordon of New Delhi’s Vigyan Bhavan. All of us were being ‘processed’ to listen to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh address over 1,000 delegates at TERI’s Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS).
When I heard the sounds of a tiny infant behind me, I turned to see a strong, handsome woman holding a decidedly restless infant in the harsh mid-morning sun. It took me a moment to realise that I was standing shoulder to shoulder with one of the bravest, most illustrious women in the world… Wangari Maathai.
“Please, come with me. Let me speak with the security people. You should not be in a queue, you should be travelling to the venue with the Prime Minister himself,” I said only half-jokingly. But, with her characteristic broad smile she responded, “I don’t want anyone to make a fuss over me.” Two or three minutes went by, time enough for me to convey how much she was admired and how she was an inspiration to people across the world. Then the little one’s protests got more than just persistent, and I walked up to one of the smartly-dressed Home Ministry security officials, who instantly escorted her directly into the auditorium.
That was the only time I met Wangari Maathai one-to-one. I had read about her for decades and I was fortunate to be able to listen to her speak at DSDS. She was a gift to our planet. Founder of Africa’s Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in rural Kenya in a town called Nyeri. By the time she was 24, she had a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, followed two years later, in 1966, with a Master’s degree in Science from the University of Pittsburgh. She went on to become the first woman in East and Central Africa to win a PhD (in Anatomy), from the University of Nairobi in 1971.
By this time Wangari was already something of a celebrity and much loved by Kenyans. She chaired the National Council of Women of Kenya, and distressed to see the manner in which her country was being stripped of its life-giving forests, she launched a community-based programme to regreen it. This turned into the globally-famous Green Belt Movement, whose primary objective was poverty alleviation.
One of the few gifts she gave me in the five-minute exchange we had in New Delhi was this: “The planet will be more effectively and quickly renewed if our objectives and strategies are to run social empowerment and justice programmes whose collateral benefits are biodiversity and nature conservation. If you reverse the objectives, it does not work as well.”
Award after award followed her.
The Hunger Project, Goldman Prize, Right Livelihood Award… and so many more that they would be impractical to list here. Each award elevated those who presented it to her, more than they did her.
Put simply, she was a futurist. She really cared more about leaving the planet in a better state of health for her grandchildren than for any imagined honours, or victories. For her, democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation, were an amalgamation. One could not be achieved without the other. Predictably, she began to be feted around the world as a woman leader, was invited to address the UN General Assembly to assess the progress or otherwise of the Earth Summit held at Rio in 1992. She was appointed then to the Commission on the Future, while, at home, her people elected her from her Tetu constituency to Kenya’s Parliament, which she served admirably between 2002 and 2007. She even became Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
No one was surprised when Wangari Maathai was appointed a UN Messenger of Peace in December 2009, where she was principally tasked with linking global biodiversity conservation with the global threat from climate change. A linkage that continues to elude the supposedly wise men in whose hands our world lies today.
Wangari Maathai influenced me. Continues to influence me. And, far from where she lived, her life and her teachings are influencing young and old through the common planetary life and death mission we are collectively embarked upon across the world.
First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXV No. 12, December 2015.