Where Words Take Us – Herstory

Herstory of Wangari Maathai - here depicted in green traditional dress and Japanese Fan
Wangari Maathai, 2005. Kimimasa Mayama—Reuters/Landov

Herstory is our word for this second to last Monday of Women’s Month in South Africa. Although I love the Oxford English Dictionary, I have to credit the Merriam-Webster for its more comprehensive and balanced definition of the word, namely, ‘history considered or presented from a feminist viewpoint or with special attention to the experience of women.’ 

My last two articles were centred around the experiences of women – their stories – so I would like to keep it that way and leave the feminist part of this definition for some other time, perhaps. 

Prof Wangari Maathai

Today, herstory takes us to Kenya to meet Prof Wangari Maathai, an extraordinary woman who revolutionised the way Kenyans think about their environment by paying them small tokens of appreciation if they could plant a tree and make it survive. In this way, her Green Belt Movement provided jobs for the women of her country since 1977, and in the process started to eradicate deforestation and lift people out of poverty.

Long before anyone deemed it necessary to address the problem of climate change, she thought it imperative to convince governments and ordinary people alike that the environment is not an issue for the future but an issue for every day. It concerns the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. And ‘we can’t live without these things’.

Because she found it so difficult to change her government’s way of thinking, she went to ordinary people instead. She understood poverty as a cause of environmental degradation because ‘poor people will cut down their last tree to cook what may be their last meal. They’re not worried about tomorrow.’ But she needed poor people to understand that degrading the environment will just worsen their state of poverty.

Trees thus became her entry point into people’s lives, and through involving communities, her Green Belt Movement planted millions and millions of them. She believed trees have personalities ‘because as they grow and change the landscape, they seem to change the minds of the people too’. In this way, she initiated the shift in the collective mind of Kenyans, necessary for them to stop threatening their life-support system.

In this video, Professor Maathai explains her philosophy, you can see the transformation in the lives of one community, and you come to understand why she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Safrea or its members.


8 Responses

  1. Thank you so much for this. To my shame, I’d never heard of this great woman and the Green Belt Movement. It’s a heartening piece of Herstory, on so many levels.

  2. It is inspiring that your stories of extraordinary women have now come to the African continent.

  3. Thank you for introducing me to this wonderful woman. had never heard of her or the Green Belt Movement. She is incredibly inspiring.

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