African Women and Social Transformation: Exploring Wangari Maathai's Activism.

AuthorOchwa-Echel, James


The past three decades have witnessed an expansion of African women activists whose efforts have made remarkable strides toward gender equality and participation in key political institutions. Women's activism has been inspired by the struggles of their predecessors such as Queen Nzinga, Queen Yaa Asantewa, Mbuya Nehanda, and Mekatilili wa Menza who had limited opportunities but did all they could to mobilize and challenge colonialism in Africa, and shaped a tradition of resisting gender oppression, political domination and exploitation (Beach, 1998; Beja, 2010; Berger, 2014; Lal, 2015; McFerson, 2005; Ulrich, 2007). Their victories and trials have inspired generations of women to organize social movements that promote human rights such as the one Wangari Maathai led.

The purpose of the study is to explore Maathai's life and activism that shaped social transformation. Her contributions are worth examining because she possessed unique qualities and faced numerous challenges. These influences illuminate why she was inspired to confront issues, how she strived to transcend confining barriers, and lessons we can glean from her philosophy and practice of activism. The study contributes to the knowledge base of African women's activism inspired by their lived experiences and efforts to create spaces that are politically, socially, economically accessible.

Conceptual Lenses

This study employs Africana womanism theory and critical pedagogy espoused by Paulo Freire as the primary lenses. These theoretical perspectives can shed light on how the process of thinking about liberation translates into activism. Africana womanism is a theoretical concept that helps to interpret experiences of women of African heritage in the context of a collective African centered worldview and struggle (Hudson-Weems, 1993; Mazama 2003). Clenora Hudson-Weems who coined the term in the 1980s, explains that the theory embraces ethnicity, gender and personal and collective identities. Although it prioritizes women's empowerment, it rests on the belief that problems such as sexism, classism and racism have to be solved holistically and collectively within communities in alliance with males in the struggle. The Africana woman develops a close relationship with family, community and career even in the midst of oppression and human suffering. Africana womanism is a suitable lens for interpreting Maathai's individual and community empowerment and her holistic approach to solutions about human problems.

Paulo Freire (1921-1997) is one of the most important educators and humanitarians of the 20th century. As a proponent of critical pedagogy, his approach to education was both revolutionary and political, linking the identification of issues to positive action for change and development. Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2005) is devoted to discussing his perspective on critical pedagogy.

Freire's critical pedagogy involves posing and solving problems in ways that challenge the recognition, engagement and critique of any undemocratic, oppressive and unfair social and institutional practices (Freire, 2005). It has a service-learning component that situates activities that are relevant to learners' experiences and combines learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance growth for educators and leaners and the common good. The passion and principle infused in these goals help learners develop a consciousness of freedom, recognize authoritarian tendencies, empower the imagination, and connect knowledge and truth to power, as part of a broader struggle for justice and democracy. Several tactics in Maathai's activism are mirrored in Freire's critical pedagogy. Both prioritize the mastery of knowledge and skills for energizing positive change and underscore the need to create democratic spaces so that resources that are vital for human survival are equitably distributed. Africana womanism and Freire's critical pedagogy are suitable for evaluating the transformative power of knowledge and skills for the individual and community manifested through their commitment to awaken their consciousness about issues related to gender, socioeconomic and political oppression and work in solidarity to seek solutions.

This study engages carefully selected primary and secondary sources that underline Maathai's philosophy, ideals and practical inclinations. The primary sources that focus on the interaction of Maathai's life story with the environment, race, gender, democracy and class differentiation include Unbowed: A Memoir (2006) (Hence forth Unbowed) and The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience (1985). Other sources comprise a documentary, namely Taking Root (2008), articles, interviews, speeches and selected books that give recognition to Maathai's activism such as Ulrich's Well-behaved Women Seldom Make History and Speaking of Earth: Environmental Speeches that Moved the World (Tal, 2006). The latter is an edited collection of twenty speeches from twelve countries of notable activists' contribution to the environment delivered from 1963 to 2004. Following a close reading of these sources, Maathai's life, activism and impact are described and analyzed.

Key Issues, Strategies Accomplishments and Impact

Wangari Maathai started from humble beginnings, drew inspiration from her experiences, overcame many obstacles, fought to gain opportunities and became a globally renowned activist. An examination of the primary and secondary sources indicates that Maathai's activism is layered to include quest for personal change, concerns with discriminatory work place policy and conservation of the environment, empowering women and ordinary people to challenge inequality and oppression, global campaigns comprising fighting for debt forgiveness for Third World countries and fighting for human rights. Central to Maathai's activism are social issues involving a woman's place in society and what sacrifices she must make to find personal fulfillment.

Defining and Transforming Self

Self-definition and transformation are vital for empowerment because of the influences of sociocultural, patriarchal and postcolonial ideologies on the social construction of womanhood and the attitudes to gender and power relations. Maathai's journey toward self-definition and personal change are captured in Unbowed (2006). Ebila (2015) states, "... her autobiography becomes a powerful tool for self-identification that recounts her personal experiences and offers lessons to readers about the importance of being in control." (pp. 148-149). This memoir raises a number of questions including what it means for a highly educated female activist to make history. She was born in 1940 at Ihithe, a rural community located at the foothills of Aberdare mountain ranges that scientifically influenced rainfall patterns that fed several streams, created lush green fertile land and produced enough food crops. She reflects on how European settlers were drawn to the highlands' fertile land, natural resources and perfect weather. She asserts that there was a connection between the racist colonial regime and environmental destruction such as clear-cutting of native forests, hunting of wildlife and undertaking expensive commercial agriculture all of which facilitated their capitalist enterprises.

Growing up in a complex society characterized by emergent multiple hierarchies based on race, gender, level of education and socioeconomic status, the oppressive tendencies of African culture and colonial era crystallized in her mind the need to battle deep-seated perceptions of African women and men (Ebila, 2015). Due to colonial influence and Christian missionary activities, society and cultures were going through transformation. African people were forced to become squatters and laborers on British settlers' farms receiving only substandard accommodation and food but no schools. The emerging lifestyles forced women to head many households and men to migrate to urban areas for work only able to make interval visits to families.

Maathai credits her experiences locally and abroad for shaping her evolving perspectives and equipping her with knowledge and skills that enhanced the connection between searching for identity and acquiring consciousness about social responsibility. Although her formal education was delayed, partly because sons were given first priority, and due to the high cost of education and the expectation of girls to fulfill domestic chores, Maathai's enthusiasm for education led her to study in the United States (US), as a beneficiary of the Kennedy Airlift Program that offered scholarships to promising African students in 1960 (Maathai, 2006; Samuel, 2006). Following her four-year immersion in Mount St. Scholastica College for women in Atchison, Kansas, she earned a master's degree in biology from University of Pittsburgh in 1965. Her doctoral studies in Germany and Kenya earned her a PhD in 1971, making her the first woman to earn a doctorate in Eastern Africa.

While the view that highly educated women were less African was pervasive in society at the time, a solid educational background shaped Maathai's self-discovery and became a crucial foundation for her transformation and activism (Ebila, 2015; Maathai, 2006). According to Maathai (2006), her experiences in the US inspired her quest for personal change that entailed reclaiming her indigenous African names, "Wangari Muta" and dropping her European names, "Mary Josephine;" it exposed her to activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Jesse Jackson and awakened her consciousness about issues women faced in Kenya. She states:

United States prepared me to be confident not only in reclaiming my original names but to critique what was happening at home, including what women were experiencing. My years in the United States overlapped with the beginnings of the...

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