Wangari Maathai: Mother of trees

Mamata Pandya

The first week of July is celebrated in India as VanMahotsav or forest festival. It is marked by the planting of thousands of trees through community events. It is a reminder of the critical role that vegetation plays in the conservation of water and soil, and thus of life itself. This week brings to mind the story of another greening movement that was the brainchild and life-long passion of an incredible woman named Wangari Maathai.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area in the central highlands of Kenya in 1940. Her parents were farmers and she was the third of six children. Wangari’s childhood was spent in the outdoors, playing in the fig trees and the stream around her home and helping her mother collect firewood for the household. She always saw herself as “a child of the soil”, growing up with her mother’s belief that trees were ‘God’ and should be respected accordingly, something she made the foundation of her life’s work.

Wangari started her education at St. Cecilia Intermediary, a local mission school. She was always a star student; she won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in the United States and graduated in 1964. She went on to earn a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. But as she wrote in her memoir Unbowed, “The spirit of freedom and possibility that America nurtured in me made me want to foster the same in Kenya, and it was in this spirit that I returned home.”

After she returned to Kenya, Wangari continued her studies and obtained a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first African woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree. She then joined the university as an associate professor and went on to become chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s.

Wangari was however more than an academic. She was very aware of the changes in her native country’s landscape stemming from the legacy of the British rule – massive deforestation and overexploitation of resources. As a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), she was also becoming engaged with women’s issues. She heard and saw rural women who were facing immense hardships due to water sources drying up and degradation of the soil; women who had to walk miles each day in search of firewood to cook their meals.

By then I understood the connection between the tree and water, so it did not surprise me that when the fig tree was cut down, the stream where I had played with the tadpoles had dried up. I profoundly appreciated the wisdom of my people, and how generations of women had passed on to their daughters the cultural tradition of leaving the fig trees in place. I was expected to pass it on to my children too.

Wangari remembered her mother’s words about trees. She realized that the only way to prevent further deterioration of the land was to plant trees. Now, it is one thing to understand the issues. It is quite another to do something about them. But I have always been interested in finding solutions…. It just came to me: ‘Why not plant trees?’

Wangari first approached foresters to urge for more intense and extensive tree planting. But they derided her by saying what could a veterinary scientist know about plants and plantation? Wangari was undeterred. She decided to go directly to the local women and started explaining to them the links between tree cover, soil, and water conservation, and availability of firewood to cook nutritious meals for the family. She urged that women themselves should take on the mission of planting trees.

Wangari set the example by starting a small tree nursery in her backyard and giving women saplings to plant. “As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree. After the women had planted seedlings on their farms, I suggested that they go to surrounding areas and convince others to plant trees. This was a breakthrough, because it was now communities empowering one another for their own needs and benefit.”

This simple formula was to snowball into one of the largest grassroots tree planting movement – Kenya’s Green Belt Movement. Wangari’s approach was practical, holistic, and deeply ecological – the tree roots helped bind the soil, halting erosion and retaining ground water when it rained. This water replenished the streams needed for cultivation of food crops. The trees also provided food, fodder, and fuel which were the mainstay of the communities. Initially the government did not pay much attention to these nurseries, but as thousands of nurseries began to be created the government began to see the potential threat that such mobilization could pose to the status quo and vested interests, and it began to harass the Green Belters. By then the movement had attained its own momentum and mobilized thousands of women and men to plant tens of millions of trees across the country. The movement also did more than get women to plant trees; it empowered them to stand up for themselves even in the face of domineering husbands and village chiefs, as well as political and social pressures.

As the movement grew, Wangari Maathai was also becoming more convinced in her understanding that environmental changes alone were not sustainable unless they were linked to issues of governance, peace, and human rights. She used the movement to also address abuse of power like land-grabbing and human rights issues like illegal detention of political opponents. This led the Green Belt Movement to be labelled as ‘subversive’ during the 1980s.

Wangari felt that these issues could not be fought only through activism. She herself entered the political fray. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and also served as an assistant minister in the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. She used her position to fight for women’s rights, democratic processes, and questioned corruption and abuse of power. This also led her to be seen as a threat to the powers that be; she was threatened, harassed, beaten and even jailed. In 2008 she was pushed out of the government.

In the meanwhile, Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement were attracting international attention. She travelled across the world campaigning for change; urging action to be taken on environmental justice, climate change, and championing the cause of participatory democracy, good governance, and women’s rights. Her key message was: It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in. Meanwhile in Kenya, the Green Belt Movement continued to grow and spread with over 6000 grassroots nurseries and tens of millions of trees planted across Kenya.

In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman to be awarded the Prize. In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”

Wangari Maathai passed away in 2011. Even her last wish to be buried in a casket made of hyacinth, papyrus, and bamboo, echoed her life’s mission to save trees. Mama Miti or ‘the mother of trees’ as she was fondly called in Swahili left behind an inspiring legacy of millions of trees that sustain their land, planted and nurtured by the thousands of women whose lives she touched and changed in many ways. She exemplifies how one woman can be a powerful force for change.

The author worked at the Centre for Environment Education in Ahmedabad for over three decades, where she was engaged in instructional design for educators and children. She is now an independent consultant, editor, writer, translator, storyteller and blogger. She can be reached at

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