Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai (1940–2011) was a Kenyan scholar and environmental activist. She founded the pioneering Green Belt Movement in 1977, which encourages people, particularly women, to plant trees to combat environmental degradation.

Pedagogical Unit

The Green Belt Movement in context:

women’s movements in Africa

Women’s movements and the colonial heritage

There are impressive examples of political struggle by African women’s organizations in the first half of the twentieth century, such as the famous revolts against taxation by the Aba women, Nigeria (1929), or the organized protests of the Abeokuta Women’s Union in the late 1940s, also in Nigeria.

And yet as independence was won across the continent, many women’s organizations remained bound to welfare, domestic and religious concerns.

Organizations such as the Girl Guides or the Young Women’s Christian Association, inherited from the wives of European colonial officials, maintained a steady distance from political issues, leaving African women with little influence over policies that directly affected them

Women from the city of Aba in Nigeria, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Forging a common front

Gradually, however, these women’s groups would be replaced by organizations founded and run by African women in Africa, directly championing political causes. In establishing the Women’s Decade (1976–1985), and in organizing major international women’s conferences (Mexico City, 1975; Nairobi, 1985; Beijing, 1995), the United Nations helped to weld together the various political and economic goals that women had been voicing across the continent, and beyond.

Indeed, improvement in travel and communication technology meant that issues fundamental to women’s empowerment, such as land rights, access to education, constitutional protection, financial independence, fundraising and political influence, were now being discussed between women from different regions, cultures and political backgrounds, in shared terms. There was growing solidarity, awareness and strength in numbers.

The Green Belt Movement, a pioneering non-governmental organization (NGO)

As well as living and moving with these changes, the Green Belt Movement became a pioneering presence, in and beyond Africa. Under the influential, ethical leadership of Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement demonstrated how an NGO could survive without stable financial backing, and even grow to exert influence. It was transparent and accountable, and courageously preserved its independence from the government. This independence was essential to its protests against abuses of state power.

Also key to the movement’s success were the alliances that it was able to forge. Profiting from the tradition of strong civil society in Kenya, as well as Nairobi’s importance as a regional centre for international organizations, Maathai was able to set up a dynamic network of local, regional and international groups. These included the Pan-African Green Belt Movement, Grassroots Organizations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS), and various United Nations programmes concerning development, environment, and women.

Wangari Maathai at the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference. Photograph by Mark Garten/United Nations, 2009.