Wangari Maathai: "You Strike The Woman …"

Despite the odds and occasional threats,
Wangari Maathai presses on
in her campaign to keep Kenya green

One of the articles in Making It Happen (IC#28)
Originally published in Spring 1991 on page 55
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute

I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.

All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet – at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.

– Wangari Maathai

Several years ago I saw a performance by a touring company of women from South Africa called "You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock." It was advertised as a song of "strength and endurance and joy." I remembered it as I talked with Wangari Maathai, the woman who founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and who was in the United States to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws from Williams College, to speak at the Open Space Environmental Conference in San Francisco, and to address various environmental groups on behalf of her threatened movement. I met her in Hanover, NH, where she stopped for 2 days to meet with faculty and students whom she had met through the Dartmouth College Environmental Studies Foreign Study Program in Kenya.

Maathai is a striking, statuesque woman who gives the impression not only of strength but also of depth. Her skin is a plum black. She speaks in a deep, rich voice out of a passionate commitment to bedrock issues such as environmental conservation, freedom of speech, and women’s rights. All of these issues have been raised during the founding and development of the Green Belt Movement, which organizes villagers to raise and plant trees around the country "to make Kenya green again."

I kept thinking of the title "You Strike the Woman, You Strike the Rock" again and again as we talked because Maathai has been struck again and again. Early in her life she and her three children were abandoned by her ex-husband, an ex-Parliament-arian. He was awarded a divorce on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control." The latter charge was reiterated recently by a women’s group in Kenya, one dependent on the ruling party. The group denounced her as a violator of the African tradition: she was not a docile woman and did not submit to men. She even dared, they said, to raise her voice against the men of the government, including President Moi.

Maathai describes the strikes against her, however, as "God-sent troubles." She says that through her education she came to see the difference between right and wrong. (She holds a B.A. from Mt. St. Scholastica, a small-town college in Kansas; an M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, and a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, where she went after studying at the University of Munich in Germany). "Since then, as far as I could, I have tried to seek the good."

She paused. "Now I sound like Solomon," she said, and we both laughed.

"But I kept stumbling and falling and stumbling and falling as I searched for the good. ‘Why?’ I asked myself. Now I believe that I was on the right path all along, particularly with the Green Belt Movement, but then others told me that I shouldn’t have a career, that I shouldn’t raise my voice, that women are supposed to have a master. That I needed to be someone else. Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.

"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 a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence. The worst problem for both men and women in Africa today actually is unspinning the cocoon of Western stereotypes, within which people are confined by the internationalization of Western culture’s patronizing and exploitative conceptions of Africans: ‘decolonizing the mind’ as Ngugi says."

Despite her international acclaim as an environmental conservationist – the UN, among others, has cited her organization as a model of grassroots conservation – Maathai has recently been struck again. She has raised her voice, this time against the appropriation of Freedom Park, a popular open space in downtown Nairobi. The ruling party wants to build the tallest skyscraper in Africa there to house its offices. She has dared to ask the government in public, "We can provide parks for rhino and elephants; why can’t we provide open spaces for the people? Why are we creating environmental havoc in urban areas?

"This building will cost 200 million dollars, which the ruling party – the only party – proposes to borrow mostly from foreign banks. We already have a debt crisis – we owe billions to foreign banks now. And the people are starving. They need food; they need medicine; they need education. They do not need," she says, "a skyscraper to house the ruling party and a 24-hour TV station."

The ruling party has struck back. President Moi described her as a "mad woman," a "threat to the order and security of the country," and has called for the public and the police to "stamp out trouble-makers." Various ministers have referred to her as "an ignorant and ill-tempered puppet of foreign masters," an "unprecedented monstrosity" – and accused her of inciting people to rise against "the government of men." These accusations were accompanied at the latest Parliamentary denunciation by boos and hisses, foot stamping, and shouts of "Shame! Shame!" by the legislators, who have not yet officially taken notice of the resistance to the building project from the Kenyan National Museum and the Association of Architects, as well as environmentalists who say the proposed site is directly over an underground river.

I asked Maathai if she was nervous about returning to Kenya. But the government has struck a rock. She says her will has been strengthened.

"They have bashed me only from a distance so far. They think they can embarrass and silence me with threats and name-calling. But I have an elephant’s skin. And somebody must raise the voice. I might as well have been doing nothing if I did not raise my voice.

"No, I cannot run away, although when I woke up this morning in Hanover and saw all those green trees and the mist among them, I thought, this is like my home in the mountains in winter, and it is so beautiful.

"But no, if I left Kenya I would always be thinking that if I were there I could make a contribution. Now I hope I can help to get a home for the Green Belt Movement. The police put us out of our old headquarters, and now we are operating out of my house, the safest place," she laughed. "I have a very big family now. But they haven’t deregistered us yet, and I hope that I may be able to get enough support and donations from private environmental organizations to build a secure international residential center."

Although the physical completion of the Green Belt plan is "far from realization, the biggest impact has been the sense of hope and power in the lives of the ordinary women who comprise 90% of the members. They can hardly read or write. Yet they often join the movement not from personal need; instead they need to help their family – they need to get money to pay their children’s school fees or to buy their clothes or to build a house. And the women respond so quickly to a common cause that soon they see this as a way to help the community at large – and the nation. They want to make a contribution.

"Women, I think, have a capacity to care for others, to see beyond personal gain. Many women, I believe, are at their happiest and best when they are serving. I myself am at my happiest and my best when I am serving.

"I wish that women were not so underprivileged. They have no political power and no economic power – no power to change history and shape destiny. They need to search for that something in themselves that enables them to care beyond themselves … to see what makes them a caring and concerned lot. They need to see that it can be strengthened, not abandoned or called something else – and to turn this awareness into power.

I do think, however, that this will be hard, because if you really don’t care about personal gain, you don’t pursue political power the way some men do – I think you deliberately refuse to pursue it. And then, of course, we are put at a political disadvantage."

Maathai spoke of the need for a residential facility at the proposed Green Belt Center because many people from many countries want to come as interns. "We need to educate students for 2 weeks at the Center in the theory of what we’re doing. They need to see all aspects of the environment, including the economic and the political. But it can’t all be learned from books. They need to go beyond the theory and to live and work in the villages and in the nurseries for a few weeks – at least. They need to become participant observers and really absorb the intricacies of the lives of the people in response to the environment. After that they could return to the city and analyze their experience and write proposals for action for their own communities."

Maathai also hopes to open a center for battered women, other women who have been struck. There they and others could find not only temporary shelter, but also a cloistered atmosphere in which they could rest and "put their thoughts together and to remember when they had peace of mind, and consider what they might do." She envisions both counseling and courses in women’s experience as a part of the service offered to women, in order to heighten their consciousness of their own strength and worth – "To help liberate their minds."

I asked if her plans included teaching in the US. "No, I don’t think so," she said, "I don’t know what I’d teach. Besides they haven’t roughed me up physically in Kenya yet …

"However … although I haven’t been crushed, I may get into serious trouble. They may physically abuse me. A minister and bishop who raised their voices have been killed. I don’t know. But every time you provide leadership – every time you speak out, you expect you may suffer for what you believe in.

"So I don’t know if I will teach." She smiled softly. "You know, at this stage, I think I could do anything."

Priscilla Sears is a senior lecturer in English at Dartmouth College.

Back To The Usual Struggles

Shortly before this issue closed, contributing editor Donella H. (Dana) Meadows received this circular from Wangari Maathai about her arrival back in tense Kenya. Dana noted that at the bottom of the Green Belt Movement’s stationery appears this slogan: AS FOR ME I HAVE MADE A CHOICE. The Green Belt Movement can be contacted at PO Box 67545, Nairobi, Kenya, Tel. (254/2) 504264.

There are many reasons to sit back, relax and rejoice in a moment of thanksgiving, for this letter is coming to you from Nairobi Office and has been drafted in the good old office of the Coordinator.

After what seemed like a never-ending journey – on to Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, and Nairobi – the four weeks I had planned to be away had rolled into almost 13 weeks of joy, sharing, hope, rejuvenation, encouragement, support, reflections, concern, moments of thanksgiving, of remembrance, of love, of emotional and tearful reunions, of beauty and marvels and peace and of the strong urge to stay on the course and do whatever waits to be done!

Here in Nairobi it is back to the usual struggles. When we were moved from the town office and found shelter at home, we also constructed some additional and temporary shelter, annexed to the main house, to make more room for the large team of 40. However, it was not built according to international standards! So when Nairobi City Authorities decided that all un-approved structures would be demolished – and displaced thousands of poor people (over 30,000 in one village) – the Green Belt team felt so threatened that they abandoned the extension and took refuge in the main house. Upon return, it is difficult to find peace and quiet, because files, desks, books, letters, chairs, machines, and people are everywhere!

Nevertheless, this is home sweet home-cum-office. What a place! This is my special moment to say thank you to each and every one of you for giving hope and encouragement. Thank you for the caring, the opportunity to share, the friendship, all through the trip, a truly memorable experience.

You are remembered individually and together. Wonderful memories are called back: eating together, walking together in the woods and parks, time in church praying together, talking and listening to people, being counselled, being encouraged, being criticised, being praised with degrees and citations. Yes, those are all very wonderful times. Thank you for those precious moments of love, joy, and peace.

This was to let you know the current address and telephone number, and to ask you to join in this wonderful moment of thanksgiving for these warm and cherished memories. We will be communicating with you soon.

– Wangari Maathai


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