Catholic Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize – a first for an African woman and a first for environmentalism – for her work with the Green Belt Movement, the largest community-based environmental organization in Africa.
Maathai (1940-2011), who died this week of ovarian cancer, was particularly known for leading poor Kenyan women in a reforestation movement that has planted 30 million trees and for actively resisting the corruption of Kenyan president Daniel Arap Moi. At the announcement of the prize, the international press ran photos of Maathai standing tall, proud, beaming – and alone – in the spotlight.
“The Nobel Prize is absolutely a singular recognition,” explained Kenyan activist Njoki Njehu, director of the Washington, D.C.-based “50 Years is Enough” debt-relief campaign to Sojourners. “But it is also a collective recognition…[of] African women in terms of a way of valuing women’s work that has not been valued.” (Taking Root, a film about Maathai and the Greenbelt Movement, has just been released.)
Wangari Maathai opened her memoir with an scripture from Ezekiel. “The trees of the field will yield their fruit and the ground will yield its crops; the people will be secure in their land. They will know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke and rescue them from the hands of those who enslaved them” (34:27). Below is an excerpt from the opening chapters of her extraordinary autobiography.
I was born the third of six children, and the first girl after two sons, on April 1, 1940, in the small village of Ihithe in the central highlands of what was then British Kenya. My grandparents and parents were also born in this region near the provincial capital of Nyeri, in the foothills of the Aberdare Mountain Range. To the north, jutting into the sky, is Mount Kenya.
Two weeks into mbura ya njahi, the season of the long rains, my mother delivered me at home in a mud-walled house with no electricity or running water. She was assisted by a local midwife as well as women family members and friends. My parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of forty-two ethnic groups in Kenya and then, as now, the most populous. They lived from the soil and also kept cattle, goats, and sheep.
At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was still lush, green, and fertile. The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that the long, monsoon rains would start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it would be so foggy you would not be able to see ten feet in front of you, and so cold and frosty in the morning that the grass would be silvery-white with dew. In Kikuyu, July is known as mworia nyoni, the month when birds rot, because birds would freeze to death and fall from the trees.
We lived in a land abundant with shrubs, creepers, ferns, and trees, like the mitundu, mukeu, and migumo, some of which produced berries and nuts. Because rain fell regularly and reliably, clean drinking water was everywhere. There were large, well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist.
When a baby joined the community, a beautiful and practical ritual introduced the infant to the land of the ancestors and conserved a world of plenty and good that came from that soil. Shortly after the child was born, a few of the women attending the birth would go to their farms and harvest a bunch of bananas, full, green, and whole. If any of the bananas had ripened and birds had eaten them, the women would have to find another full bunch. The fullness expressed wholeness and wellness, qualities the community valued. Along with the bananas, the women would bring to the new mother’s house sweet potatoes from their gardens and blue-purple sugarcane (kigwa kia nyamuiru). No ordinary sugar cane would do.
In anticipation of the birth, the expectant mother would fatten a lamb that slept and ate inside her home. While the women gathered the ritual foods, the child’s father would sacrifice the lamb and roast a piece of the flesh. The bananas and the potatoes would also be roasted and along with the meat and the raw sugarcane given to the new mother. She would chew small pieces of each in turn and then put some of the juice into the baby’s tiny mouth. This would have been my first meal. Even before breast milk, I would have swallowed the juice of green bananas, blue-purple sugarcane, sweet potatoes, and a fattened lamb, all fruits of the local land. I am as much a child of my native soil as I am of my father, Muta Njugi, and my mother, Wanjiru Kibicho, familiarly known by her Christian name, Lydia. Following the Kikuyu tradition, my parents named me for my father’s mother, Wangari, an old Kikuyu name. –Wangari Muta Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir