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Celebrating Africa's Heroine
Posted Thu, 03 Mar 2005

International Women’s Day is an important occasion for reviewing, reaffirming and occasionally acting on the political, economic and social rights of women. This year, we celebrate IWD on March 8th by honoring Wangari Maathai who has proved that despite heavy obstacles, we can still achieve our goals if we put up a good fight and never look back.

BY Joy Okech New People Feature Service

“African women in general need to know that it’s ok for them to be the way they are, to see the way they are as strength and to be liberated from fear and from silence…”.

These are words of Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai; winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Prof. Maathai is no longer a stranger to the world and especially to Africa since becoming the first African woman to win the prestigious award. She has not only made Africa proud but has proven that she leads and others follow.

Wangari’s life started 1940 in a humble village in Nyeri district, central Kenya. She was an ordinary village girl who lived her life like any other village girl. But she was not content with remaining a nondescript village girl. Wangari wanted to scale great heights. And so with the support of her parents, she put education first. She pursued higher education and earned a biology degree from Mount St. Scholastica College. She followed this with a Masters Degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

Her love for the environment started at a tender age. She was always surrounded with trees and grew up to appreciate their importance. A pioneering academic, her role as an environmentalist began after she planted trees in her back garden. This inspired her to form a predominantly women’s organization in 1977: the Green Belt Movement.

It took quite a while for Wangari to convince women that they could improve their environment without much technology. Her campaign against deforestation and desertification did not go down well with the then government of former President Moi.

Wangari was attacked and suffered physical injury. She was arrested many times; even imprisoned. In 1997, Wangari unsuccessfully ran for Kenya’s presidency. Her poor performance was partly due to false reports that she had withdrawn from the race. Despite these setbacks, Maathai continued to fight for what was right locally. She earned worldwide attention.

In the 2002 elections, Maathai vied for a parliamentary seat in her constituency and won with a landslide. Her moments of glory had just begun. She was appointed deputy minister for environment in the NARC government. Many Kenyans felt that she deserved a full ministerial position.

Winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 was historical but this was not the Professor’s first claim to leadership. She is a woman of many firsts. She is the first woman in Eastern Africa to hold a PhD and the first to head a department in Nairobi University, Kenya’s oldest and largest public university.

During a recent interview, the Nobel Laureate said she is happy that the idea of improving the environment was not fetched from abroad but evolved from local way of life and values.

She hopes this will challenge African leaders to approach development holistically. “You cannot oppress human rights, run dictatorial governments, and develop. Instead of seeking outside solutions to tackle our problems, we should seek solutions from within”.

Prof. Maathai admits that the prize has increased her workload but she is happy that it will give her an opportunity to explain and inspire others. “I feel I have been given the responsibility to inspire women and the girl-child especially here in Africa where women are at times not listened to”, she concludes.

Looking at Prof. Maathai’s record, one thing is for sure: she will not stop at the Nobel Peace Prize; no matter how outstanding the achievement is. She will look for other peaks to climb. For that is what defines Wangari Muta Maathai.

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Financing Black Empowerment Partnerships 2006
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