“Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and, in the process, heal our own, indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder. Recognising that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come”
Wangari Maathai

In the words of the Nobel Committee who awarded Professor Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace – “She thinks globally and acts locally.” They acknowledged she was a woman of great vision to change the world and make it a better place, starting with her neighbour and her community.

In the words of her ex-husband, she was: “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”. I guess no one gave him the memo that there is no limit to what women can achieve. At that time, Professor Maathai was yet to show the world what women are capable of when our strength is uninhibited, when our success is celebrated and when our stubbornness/determination is sharpened and focused to create good trouble and dismantle systems that disempower.

“What a friend we have in a tree, the tree is the symbol of hope, self-improvement and what people can do for themselves.” Wangari Maathai

Her crusade began after she returned to Kenya in 1966 after having won a Kennedy scholarship to study in America. Arriving home after having completed her PhD, she was shocked at the degradation of the forests and farmlands caused by deforestation. Heavy rains had washed much of the topsoil away, silt clogged the rivers and fertilisers have severely deprived the soil of nutrients. Professor Maathai knew the people of her homeland were caught in the dreadful dilemma of having to choose between poverty or care for the environment, but she envisioned a different way.

In 1977 she established the Green Belt Movement (GBM) through which she began to organise women in rural Kenya to plant trees. Since then, over 51 million trees have been planted in Kenya. GBM is still a grassroots movement but it works at national and international levels to promote environmental conservation, build climate resilience, and empower communities, especially women and girls, to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods. Over 30,000 women have been trained in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping, and other trades that help them earn income while preserving their lands. GBM not only combats deforestation, but it also restores the main sources of fuel for cooking, generates income, and stops soil erosion. All this is the fruit of her vision that one should never be forced to choose between poverty and the environment. We can look after our home, our environment and, in turn, our home and environment will look after us.

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.” ― Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was a thought leader operating at a global level, with repercussions in local action. Not content with only creating a better environment, she also fought for human rights, and fought for democracy in Kenya. She was beaten and jailed for protesting against the building of a 60-storey government tower in the middle of Uhuru Park by President Daniel Arap Moi’s government. Her courage enabled her to stand strong and be successful in her fight. She went on to win a seat as an MP with an incredible 98% of the vote.

She shared the spoils of every win in her life with those around her so they too could be winners. Despite being born in poverty, she possessed a wealth of vision, determination and pushthroughitiveness. She saw what could be and used that vision to work to create the country she wanted to see. The GBM started by passing out seedlings and teaching groups of women how to properly plant and grow trees on their own, imitating in the physical what she had done spiritually in the way she had nurtured the seedlings of value, respect, problem-solving and love from within herself to pass on to succeeding generations, and in particular to the women who traditionally bear the brunt of society’s ills.

“The higher you move up the social ladder, the fewer women there are” ~ Wangari Maathai

Professor Maathai was not only the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, but she was also the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, and the first female professor in Kenya. Just like the trees she sought to plant to improve and restore the environment, Professor Wangari emulated the strength showcased by those trees she so loved. Time and time again she proved what is possible when people take care of what they have and nurture potential.

Significantly, Maathai wanted to dismantle the disempowering systems that instil in our thinking that somebody else is going to solve our problems for us. She wanted to teach that decisions cannot and must not be led to only the leaders, but that local groups can create the political will for change, rather than waiting for others to bring about change on their behalf. When people learn that transformation can begin with them, positive and sustainable change begins.

Throughout her life, Professor Maathai endured a variety of discrimination, racism, and gender inequality. A job offer at the University of Nairobi was withdrawn because she was seen as too ambitious for a woman, yet such was her tenacity that GBM was born out of such experiences. She made it her goal for GBM to incorporate empowering women and fostering their success. She fostered Black feminism by ensuring that women were key stakeholders and decision-makers in GBM. She understood that when you empower women, communities will be empowered, and nations are changed for the better.

The Green Belt Movement’s mission is to “mobilize community consciousness for self-determination, justice, equity, reduction of poverty, and environmental conservation, using trees as the entry point”. This is done by empowering women and men to repair and restore that which has been destroyed.

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”- Wangari Maathai

Reflective Leadership Questions

(Can be done individually or in groups)

  1. How might you, like Professor Wangari Maathai enlarge your leadership thinking to “think globally and act locally?” Where are we potentially thinking too small?
  2. The Green Belt Movement’s mission is to “mobilize community consciousness for self-determination, justice, equity, reduction of poverty, and environmental conservation, using trees as the entry point” what leadership learning can few take from this and might it challenge our own mission?
  3. Rather than waiting for others to bring about change on your behalf. What transformation can you begin in your leadership contest which will bring positive and sustainable change?