Wangari Maathai

When Professor Wangari Muta Maathai died in Nairobi on September 25, 2011, the world was united in sorrow, respect and admiration. Thousands of greetings flooded into Nairobi. She was celebrated as an environmental activist, a women's rights activist, a human rights activist, and a Green politician.


Born on April 1, 1940 in a small Kenyan village, Wangari was one of the first generation of young girls to attend school thanks to her mother's clairvoyance. While Kenya fought for its independence, Wangari studied in monastic schools and received a scholarship in 1960, which enabled her to study in the United States. Her understanding of justice and liberal freedoms has been strongly influenced by her experiences with the civil rights movement in America.


Back in Kenya, Wangari found that after independence the country had not kept pace with her personal growth: when she lost the promised assistant position at Nairobi University to a man of preferred ethnic origin, she suffered this experience of exclusion in an increasingly ethnically polarized society. At the same time, her understanding of the limits that the traditional image of the African woman would place in the way of her own energy and ambitions grew. And so her social and political commitment found its starting point in the women's movement, in which she soon became a figure of identification. First in Kenya, where she became chairwoman of the National Council of Women in 1981; and later worldwide as co-founder of the Women's Environment and Development Organisation.


Wangari's unshakable optimism that her belief in a "glimmer of light in every darkness" helped her turn setbacks into opportunities. Instead of resigning, she began her doctoral studies at the University of Giessen and in 1971 became the first East African woman to obtain a doctorate. Six years later, she was the first woman in the region to head a university department. A year later she became Kenya's first assistant professor. A successful academic career seemed to lie ahead of her - and yet everything turned out quite differently.


Wangari Maathai saw the plight of the women around him. She wanted to do something about it immediately. She understood how the struggle for the country's dwindling resources repeatedly led to conflicts and was misused by political elites for their purposes. Wangari Maathai's answer was to promote self-initiative in order to plant trees, stop the destruction of the forest and (re)create rural livelihoods.


She will remain forever connected to the millions of trees she has planted with thousands of women throughout Kenya. The first "green belt" consisted of seven trees. To date, the Green Belt Movement, founded by Wangari in 1977, has planted more than 45 million trees, providing a source of income for tens of thousands of people. As the trees grew, so did the self-confidence of the many women and communities involved in the movement in all parts of Kenya. The initial idea of environmental education and nature conservation was expanded to include elements of civil and political commitment - a project that was also at the beginning of almost two decades of partnership with the Heinrich Böll Foundation.


The Foundation had already supported Wangari Maathai's initiative for reconciliation in the Rift Valley, the scene of violent ethnic conflicts after the 1992 parliamentary elections, by which time Wangari was already well known to the government of former ruler Daniel arap Moi. President Moi accused her of having "insects in her head". Otherwise, he could not have explained her resistance and unbroken will with which she had stopped the construction of a prestigious project of the ruling party, a skyscraper in Nairobi's only public park. A small, seemingly insignificant woman had dared to challenge the regime. And she kept doing it. In 1992, Wangari led the 11-month peaceful protest of the mothers of political prisoners. Because of her political commitment in this violent and repressive period, she was arrested several times and had to experience violence on her own body. However, their courage and exemplary approach have contributed significantly to the emergence of a self-confident and critical Kenyan civil society, without which democratic change would not have been possible.


Wangari Maathai was not only an activist, she was always a convinced democrat. She knew that political legitimacy does not only arise from principled action, but also from the broad support of the population through free and fair elections. She knew about the hardships of the political business and summed it up for herself - that a woman in Kenyan politics needs an elephant skin. She founded the "Mazingira (Environment) Party" and was overwhelmingly elected to Kenya's parliament in 2002 as the first Green politician. The election victory of the "National Rainbow Coalition" under the leadership of Mwai Kibaki, a coalition of opposition parties to which the Mazingira Party also belonged, ended the decades-old autocratic rule of Daniel arap Moi. Wangari Maathai became Deputy Minister of the Environment. She left the government again when the rainbow coalition broke up, partly because President Kibaki had not kept promises to his partners on constitutional reform.


At the end of 2007 Wangari Maathai ran again - and was unsuccessful. In the end, their global and national roles proved incompatible with the demands of Kenyan local politics against which their constituency measured them. When the controversial election results of 2007/08 led to a severe violent crisis that cost the lives of over 1,000 people, Wangari Maathai, together with other forces of civil society, tried to bring about a Grand Coalition between the opponents.


The list of honors for Wangari Maathai is long and impressive. The international public has often been an important shield against the many political threats and intimidation attempts in Kenya. In 1984 she received the Alternative Nobel Prize. In April 2004, the Heinrich Böll Foundation awarded the Petra Kelly Prize to Wangari for her "unreserved commitment to human rights, the rights and emancipation of women, non-violence, ecological sustainability and the democratisation of Kenya".


In the autumn of the same year she was the first African to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She has tirelessly used this award to carry her message for a peaceful coexistence of all people, regardless of ethnicity, religion or gender, as well as the peaceful coexistence of man and nature, into the world. Those who were allowed to experience it could feel its power, authenticity and passion with which it was able to win over people and especially young people.


Together with the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Wangari Maathai launched the "African Call to Climate Change" in 2007: an appeal to the world public, but also to African leaders to assume responsibility for defending against the foreseeable catastrophic consequences of climate change, which will hit Africa particularly hard.


In recent years Wangari Maathai began to realize a great dream: the foundation of an Institute for Peace and Environmental Research at the University of Nairobi, which will bear her name. The Institute closes the circle. Research and academic teaching should serve the needs of village communities and be accessible there. It remains the task of her friends to put this legacy into practice.


(Excerpt from an obituary by Barbara Unmüßig, Heinrich Böll Foundation, from: