Lessons From Wangari Maathai





She was born on the 1st day of April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District of Kenya. Wangari Muta (her name at birth) later changed her name to Mary Josephine, a name she took to suit her involvement in the Christian faith. She later travelled to the USA where she continued her education under the Joseph P. Kennedy Jnr Foundation.

She dropped her Christian name, Mary Josephine, when she returned to Kenya and decided to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta. She later started working in Kenya and in May 1969, got married to Dr Mwangi Maathai. She so much supported the man during his campaign for a seat in the parliament. The husband later won that seat after two trials and to help keep his promise to provide jobs for the youths and women of Kenya, she employed many youths and women to work in her tree planting company, Envirocare Ltd.

Wangari and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, seperated in 1977 and finally divorced in 1979.Her husband said he could no longer live with her because she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and he was unable to control her. He also accused her of adultery with some parliamentarian. The judge ruled in Mwangi’s favour. She was later charged with contempt of court and jailed for six months for calling the judge either incompetent or corrupt. She was released after two months. With the loss of her husband’s job, it was difficult for her to provide for her and the children with just the salary from her university job.

Wangari Maathai later resigned her job to run for a seat in the parliament. Once again, she was stopped by the court just few hours before the time she was to present her candidacy papers in Nyeri, her district. This woman of courage went back to continue her job, but was denied. She later got evicted from the university house where she lived under the instruction of President Daniel Arap Moi, her number one political enemy. She was later offered the position of a coordinator for the Green Belt Movement.

Due to this woman’s numerous protests against the government and some of their policies, the government used the media against her calling her a crazy woman. In 1989, the parliament called the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members “a bunch of divorcees”. During a speech celebrating independence on December 12 1989, President Arap Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. She was forced to vacate her office and the Green Belt Movement had to move into her home. So many persecutions you say.

Wanagri Maathai went through so much pain for humanity with beatings from the police in 1992 during her protest for the release of prisoners. Yes she was called a mad woman and a threat to the security of the nation. She was severely beaten and hospitalized, but the political prisoners that she fought for were all released in 1993. On 8 October 2004, she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable developments, democracy, and peace. This great woman died on 25 September 2011 while receiving treatment in a Nairobi hospital due to complications arising from ovarian cancer.

My God! This is one woman whose life, just like the life of Winnie Mandela, has greatly influenced me. I love women with guts and courage. I love women who don’t give up in the face of adversity. I love women who don’t know what the word impossibility is. This is what a typical African woman should be; strong and courageous.

Today, we are told to run away from every little persecution. We are taught to go back into our shell just because of one little trial or pain. Who says you can’t stand again? Who says that you can never rise again just because of one trial and shaking? Woman, Nigerian woman, you can rise and lead again.

I am a perfect proof that courage and perseverance pays. I am an African woman who has received a good dose of pain from life. I remember when I was made to feel worthless because I lost my marriage. I remember almost giving up on life and trying to stay away from people. I even stopped going to church for almost one year. But I also thank God for the grace to surround myself with very good friends, people with a special kind of view on life. I was helped to stand again with the constant assurance that my labour in the marriage will fetch me good things of life.

Today, I am not yet there, but I can tell you that it’s been awesome. Never let people and circumstances pull you down. Look at the life of Wangari, they even used her status as a divorcee to attack her politically. She did not give up. They called her a mad woman; beat her to the point that she was hospitalized. She recovered and went back to her mission. Don’t run away from your vision because of a little shaking. If you don’t go through pain, you can never be an authority in life.

Wangari Maathai also stood by her husband in his career. Every wise woman understands the power of unity in her home. I remember reading a story where a very powerful woman said she gives up her own speaking engagements if the need arises for her to spend time with her man or follow him to his own seminars. Wangari stood by her husband and helped to make sure that he kept his promise of providing jobs to the women and youths of Kenya. You must rise to the level where you begin to support your man in his own endeavours. You must be the first believer and disciple he has; if you don’t believe him, the world won’t.

Wangari Maathai carried other women along. Don’t be too selfish with whatever nature has blessed you with. Look around you, there are young women and the voiceless ones to help. Think of what you can do to make their lives better. I have started speaking to single girls from my own experience because I don’t want them to find themselves in the same mess I went through. I see myself as a sacrificial lamb for the women of Africa and that is why I speak to them and help fight their cause.

I want you to stop dwelling in your past. You have been there long enough that you can’t go on allowing your painful experiences keep you down. If you call yourself a very special woman, you must be ready to go through pain and trials. If you are not made to pass through fire, you can never come out as gold.

See yourself as an authority in that area of pain and c’mon, use it positively for your generation. If you were raped by a man, stop lamenting over it; get up and get involved in the fight against rape. If you survived cancer, get into the boat with other survivors and preach the gospel against cancer. Were you a victim of domestic violence like me? Thank God He brought you out alive and then join other women in saying no to domestic violence.

Another thing that is outstanding in the life of this woman, Wangari Maathai is her decision to drop her Christian name, Mary Josephine and take up her birth name, Wangari Muta. We are often quick to take up those oyibo names that are very sweet to the ears, even when we don’t know their meanings. Let us fight hard to keep our inheritance and culture.

Take some lessons from Wangari Maathai, she did not stop for a moment to grieve her past experiences; they made her stronger. You can be just a housewife, you are not useless. Look around you today; there is something you can do for your name to be heard in your generation. You may not be involved in tree planting and activism like Wangari, but you can get involved in the building of lives of other women. Who knows, you may be the next African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Refuse to just exist; start living today.