I met Wangari Maathai in 2007 after a lecture at a university. I don’t remember much of her speech, but I do remember the calm sound of her voice and how she continued to sign books far after her handler told her they really really had to get to the airport now. She was kind and full of energy, even for a small audience.
Wangari Maathai was a Nobel Peace Prize winner, author, environmentalist, activist, champion for women’s rights and a public servant. She died at the age of 71 of cancer on September 25, 2011.
Maathai led a fascinating life, and her memoir Unbowed is an interesting record of her experiences. She is most well-known for founding the Green Belt Movement, an environmental organization dedicated to planting trees and preventing deforestation in Kenya. She is less well-known for her acts of civil disobedience, government protest, and at one time reportedly being on a hit list.
I’m awed by Maathai’s fearlessness and ability to overcome eviction, lost elections, arrests, beatings, and smear campaigns. Maathai was also a woman far ahead of her time who refused to back down. She was able to strategically attract and use foreign publicity back in the 1980s. She made causal links between the health of women with the well-being of the environment. And she was able to inspire people to follow her vision and elect her as a candidate.
Maathai faced many issues in her life that women are still trying to navigate today – divorce, being pulled between career and childcare responsibilities, financial difficulties, and being a woman in male-dominated scientific field (in the 1960s, no less). Her approach to facing these challenges wasn’t always successful, but her actions were steadfast and unapologetic. Besides being brave, Maathai was brazen and ambitious – qualities more women, especially women candidates, should tap into.
Her message and her successes made an impact far outside of Kenya. And I think if we take one lesson away from Maathai’s example, it’s to not be afraid to take the gloves off and trust that the importance of your cause is worth the risk.
For information about the Nairobi tribute to Maathai and to read comments and condolences from around the world, check out The Professor Wangari Maathai Facebook Page.
And for those who missed it, this morning, it was announced that three women would be sharing the Nobel Peace Prize this year: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian women’s rights activist Leymah Gbowee, and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen. All three women have worked to ensure women actively participate in the process of creating peace.
One can only hope that every time we lose a great women leader, three more rise up to take her place.
Photo Credit: World Changing