Wangari Maathai – People’s Intellectual Against State Repression


The story of Prof Wangari Maathai counts among those of the brave African Women fighting neocolonialism in the continent, whose work significantly contributed to the peasants struggle against imperialism. 

Wangari, as many fondly referred to her, defied the brutal authoritarian Daniel Arap Moi and could be seen openly and fearlessly educating communities on conservation and how to utilise their indigenous knowledge to safeguard their habitat. This, in the process, empowered them to become human rights defenders for the environment and open spaces, which she termed crucial to our survival.  

Noting that “culture is coded wisdom”, Wangari would explain that it was through accumulated wisdom over many generations that Africans made it part of their culture not to destroy their forests, leaving them intact. This was because the forest was often their habitat, making its conservation a priority. Although they tried to guard their territories from invasion to, among other things, protect their habitat, they didn’t succeed in stopping colonialism, which brought with it Western imperialist ideology of capitalism that ended up overexploiting our forests and other natural resources.

Before Wangari, no one had brought out the connection between the environment and the social, economic, and political aspects of our lives better than she did. But she emerged at a time when colonialism had already instituted the destruction of indigenous forests to pave way for white settlement in the Kenyan Highlands, and for cultivation of cash crops for profit. This included encroachment on forests for other state and commercial projects. Their capitalist policies not only alienated African communities from their land but the dignity it afforded them, like keeping their wealth in livestock and growing what they wished for food. The colonial government often discouraged or prohibited the cultivation of traditional crops which disrupted traditional food systems, risking malnutrition, especially of children. 

Land alienation for cash crop cultivation became a colonial legacy that continued long after independence which Wangari spoke out against, as seen in a YouTube video in which she cautions us when she says that, “People do not know how much they depend on the survival of the ecosystem. So when people say they want to come in and cultivate, or they want to come in and grow commercial plantations, I know that they are digging their own graves.” 

Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe in the then Nyeri District and was probably aware of the changes in their environmental habitat as she grew up. Like in other places around the country, indigenous trees had been felled to build missionary churches, schools, police stations, and other colonial structures. She was a girl of 12 years when the Mau Mau uprising was heading to the forests of Aberdare and Mt Kenya, where there followed a lot of deforestation by the British forces in their bombing raids to eliminate or flush out the African fighters out of the forests. Wangari would, however, only learn about the extensive destruction much later in her life. According to one of her biographical accounts, she first experienced environmental restoration while still a student in the 1960s in the United States of America when environmentalists near her college pushed to rid their city of air pollution. One of her earliest projects connected her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed, which led to the founding of Envirocare Limited, a business venture, in 1974. The venture involved the planting of trees to conserve the environment while providing employment for ordinary people.

 She went on to found the Green Belt Movement in 1977, with the aim to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women that included environmental issues and food insecurity.  Eventually, through the movement, she greatly contributed to the struggle for freedom and democracy in the 1990s, leading efforts that included the hunger strike at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park in Nairobi by mothers of political prisoners to free them from Moi’s jails. 

One of her most notable achievements was successfully standing up to powerful elites and their neocolonial interests during the authoritarian Daniel Arap Moi regime, when she stopped the grabbing of Uhuru Park in 1989 to build a tower block. Wangari did the same ten years later when she mobilised the Green Belt Movement to stop developers from clearing sections of the Karura Forest to build luxury homes and offices for political allies of the government in 1998. This helped raise awareness about the importance of public and green spaces and the need to protect them for citizens and future generations. 

Wangari’s intellect had few equals, and used her powerful voice to drive the gender agenda. And having received education at a time when women were oppressed under a strong patriarchal culture that denied many of them education, she rose to challenge the status quo, joining heroines such as MeKatilili wa Menza, Muthoni Nyanjiru, Muthoni Likimani, Field Marshal Muthoni Kirima and Huda Sharaawi, among others. This enjoined Wangari to previous struggles including the Mau Mau revolt that also involved peasant women against the British, and with struggles for freedom such as that by Winnie Madikizela Mandela (then wife of Nelson Mandela) in South Africa.  

The Wrong Bus Syndrome 

In one of her many talks, Wangari once mentioned the tribal clashes in the 1990s, the  problems that brought them about and how to solve them.  She explained that such tribal conflicts were often a result of political, economic marginalisation and unequal distribution of resources. She advised that to solve such problems, communities have to come together and take the initiative to tackle the issues by themselves as a community. She said that they would, however, need to be empowered with political education. With an example of such political education, she explained that “You cannot enslave a mind that knows itself,” emphasising that grassroots communities have the power to change the world. She explained this in what she termed the “Wrong Bus Syndrome”. Those who don’t realise their power are, as she wrote in her book The Challenge for Africa, “Like travelers who have boarded the wrong bus, many people and communities are heading in the wrong direction or traveling on the wrong path, while allowing others (often their leaders) to lead them further from their desired destination.”  Many of these people are in are in the wrong bus, some  because of confusion, and others because of fear or ignorance. These people or communities should shed their fear and the things holding them in the bus and confront the driver to change course to where they would like to be taken.

Wangari Maathai was a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, the first woman professor in Kenya, and the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  She is an example of the role intellectuals played in our struggle for democracy and freedom. 

The power rest with the People. Homeland or death we shall win.

*Gerald Kamau aka Gere is an ecological  justice activist based at Kayole Community Justice Centre

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