Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Dr Wangari Maathai, visionary and Nobel Laureate

Nobel Prize ceremony

Though she was cut down by cancer, the legacy planted by Africa's "Tree Lady" will thrive, generation after generation.
Wangari Maathai, who died on September 25 aged 71, won the Nobel Peace Prize for encouraging women in rural Kenya to plant trees; from that simple idea sprouted a powerful movement that challenged what she saw as the incompetent, corrupt and often brutal rule of many male-dominated regimes in post-colonial Africa.

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1 1940 in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in the central highlands of Kenya. Her parents were subsistence farmers from the Kikuyu tribe. She was the eldest of six children, and in most families would not have attended school. But one day her elder brother, Nderitu, wanted to know why he had to go to school when Wangari did not. She was soon being taught by Catholic missionary nuns at Loreto Limiru Girls’ High School, from which she graduated in 1959.

Her teachers recognised her talent, and recommended her for a scholarship to study in America. In 1964 she obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St Scholastica College at Atchison, Kansas, then, in 1965, a Masters from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work involved new techniques in tissue processing that were largely unknown in Kenya, and on her return to Africa her expertise was in great demand. She became research assistant to the head of the department of Veterinary Medicine at Nairobi University, where she also taught (on lower pay than her male colleagues) and, in 1971, completed her PhD. [...]

Wangari Maathai began to focus on the vicious circle that links poverty, hunger, environmental collapse and women’s status. She saw how in poor families women scavenged for firewood to cook, eventually wandering further and further from home to find it. As more and more trees are felled, soil erosion leads to desertification; fewer cooked meals, meanwhile, results in malnutrition.

She decided to break this chain of impoverishment, developing a simple tree-planting programme. In 1977 the National Council of the Women of Kenya (NCWK) embraced her idea, initiating what was soon called the Green Belt Movement (GBM). On World Environment Day, June 5 1977, GBM began by planting seven trees in a small park in Nairobi.

It then branched out, offering free seedlings to women across the country. For every tree that survived more than three months (about 80 per cent in fertile areas) the women tending them were paid a few pennies. The more trees they planted, the more they made. As they were encouraged to plant more than they would need for firewood, women were soon able to earn extra from selling the surplus. Not only did the scheme reverse deforestation but, for the first time, many women discovered financial autonomy.
From here. And more here (also source for photo).

Meanwhile in Canada and the US, First Nations women and men are leading the charge against an expansion of the toxic Tar Sands development, by opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and the one that will be threatening the ecological integrity of the land as it snakes its way through Alberta and BC to the coast.

Tar Sands update: Our esteemed sister blogger Alison at Creekside has been covering a number of aspects over the last year. Here's an excellent overview of key players and interconnected issues.

Le Devoir also had a good item about the connections between Cons and the Contempt Party, with regard to Who's who in promoting the Tar Sands. It's in French; Google translate is your friend.


Niles said...

Shameless plug, although I'm sure it drives PETA fans bats. Heifer International is a non-profit, but also non-religious org that puts (for the most part) agriculturally based 'packets' of animals and plants into the hands of impoverished rural people around the world. Part of their set-up is seeing women receive these opportunities as well as sustainable development training and literacy and accounting. Another part of the policy is continued client commitment, including passing on increases from the packets to others in need of the same.

The thing I find morbidly amusing about the testimonials of clients who have improved their lives and livelihoods, is that many women are willing to take the gamble of Heifer training and projects while their men often aren't. But when the women make it work and the men see economic success then they'll partake and find status in it.

It always makes me wonder if historically (given that the labour of women is all too often unremarked and their entrepeneurship even less so) and pre-historically, the model was the same.

deBeauxOs said...

You mean the women do all the work and the men take all the profits and claim bragging rights?

It happens over and over again.

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