Sunday, 3 March 2013
IWD 2013: Celebrating Wangari Maathai
Our IWD 2013 Woman of the Week : Day 1
"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 silence."
A Kenyan environmental and political activist, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation [she founded the Green Belt Movement], women's rights and transparent government. Professor Maathai was the first African women to receive the award. A professor of veterinary anatomy - educated in the US and Nairobi - her rise to international fame came through her campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s-1990s.
An extraordinary woman, she stood up to authority for decades. Not only in the fight for a greener world but also in her role as an activist. She was arrested several times under the former government of President Daniel Arap Moi and vilified. In 2008, just a few years before her untimely death, she was tear-gassed during a protest against the Kenyan president's plan to increase the number of ministers in the cabinet.
On one memorable occasion, she was sent to prison for fighting for the continued existence of Uhuru Park, a green space in Nairobi that President Moi wanted to eradicate and build a huge 62-story skyscraper on as his party headquarters. Professor Maathai campaigned against this in 1991 and was sent to prison for a while. Her campaign prevailed and was ultimately successful. Today, the park remains - the area of the park where she campaigned is now known, poignantly, as Freedom Corner. A true legacy to the grit and determination of Wangari Maathai.
Throughout her life, Wangari Maathai kept bouncing back, again and again, with characteristic resilience. She would never accept 'No' for an answer. Professor Maathai spoke about her tough life experiences as a campaigner and activist, saying : "Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But, all of them picked themselves up and kept going. And that's what I've always tried to do." Her memoir, 'Unbowed', published in 2006, echoes this life theme. The YouTube film clip, 'I will be a Hummingbird', sees Wangari Maathai express her philosophy about life - 'being the best she can' - in clear, simple terms. It's worth a watch - and still incredibly relevant today!
Empowering women, was a driving passion for Wangari Maathai. She started a huge tree-planting campaign in Kenya so that she could help to empower women. The idea being that that would help rural women to become more empowered and financially independent in their own environment. Ultimately, she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 in recognition of this endeavour. Professor Maathai was swift to make the link between poverty and the environment and frequently spoke out on this topic.
Sadly, Wangari Maathai died in her early 70's in 2011 after a complicated illness. Speaking about her untimely departure from this world and the legacy she left, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia, commented at the time, "Africa, particularly African women, have lost a champion, a leader, an activist. We're going to miss her. We're going to miss the work she's been doing all these years on the environment, working for women's rights and women's participation."
Platform 51 is proud to start the week of International Women's Day 2013 by celebrating the life, and significant achievements, of this extraordinary woman. A source of inspiration to many, Wangari Maathai was able to show that if you stand up to authority, you can get somewhere. Her life and legacy should make us all feel stronger and more confident in the tough times we face today. We congratulate Wangari Maathai on her extraordinary achievements and legacy and are saddened that she is no longer with us today.
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