In 2004, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She began her acceptance speech by acknowledging her place in history. ‘As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world,’ she said. ‘I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership.’
In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in Nairobi, Kenya. The grassroots organization’s mission was to empower citizens through the planting of trees: it started with women.
‘Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers,’ Maathai explained in her Nobel lecture. ‘As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce.’ She encouraged her audience to look to themselves, instead of ‘outside’ for solutions. Through her work, she came to understand environmental stewardship as intrinsically linked to democracy and peace. For Maathai, who adored nature as a child, the tree was both a practical solution and a symbol of a better world – one each individual has a stake in protecting.
Nobel Lecture 2004
So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support [rural women’s] children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.
… Although initially the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilised to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement….
In 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations, and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democratic government and laid the foundation for a more stable society.
… It is 30 years since we started this work. Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system….
As I conclude I reflect on my childhood experience when I would visit a stream next to our home to fetch water for my mother. I would drink water straight from the stream…. I saw thousands of tadpoles: black, energetic and wriggling through the clear water against the background of the brown earth. This is the world I inherited from my parents.
Today, over 50 years later, the stream has dried up, women walk long distances for water, which is not always clean, and children will never know what they have lost. The challenge is to restore the home of the tadpoles and give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder.