Remembering Wangari Maathai

Dr. Wangari Maathai died on Sunday at 71, of ovarian cancer. It is interesting to me that so many of the obituaries get her work wrong - consider what the New York Times says:

Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats -- environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.

It is a small error, but an important one. Maathai did not wear many hats - it was all one hat. Her role empowering and educating women, repairing and protecting her beloved nation, mitigating climate change and improving the lives of the poorest people around her by enabling their subsistence, calling for justice at every turn - it was and is all one work. Maathai's great gift was her ability to see the intersection between environmental, economic, political and gender justice - and that it is not possible to repair just one piece of the world at a time.

I think it is easier to imagine that being a feminist and an environmentalist are two different things, easier to imagine that caring about human rights and deforestation are two kinds of caring. In fact, Maathai saw a whole where we are falsely inclined to see pieces. It was her vision that was right.

Some memories will always be for a blessing.


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Blessed are those who plant trees.

Thank you. She was a very wise woman.

Thank you for making the point that Wangari Maathai wore only the one hat, that all these issues---social justice, economic justice, women's rights, climate change, environmental degradation---are interwoven and strongly linked. Wangari saw that and taught that over and over and over, in words and action. Just as the problems are interwoven so are the solutions. Your video clip of Wangari explaining bed nets brilliantly exemplifies that. A truly great woman, I am sorry to hear of her death but profoundly respectful of her life.

You forgot 'HIV Denier' on your list.

And while she was planting some trees and winning a Nobel Prize, some backward white hick girl was dedicating her life to stopping HIV/AIDS. Along with thousands of other people of all age, races, genders and income levels from all over the world. Wheres their prize? Where are their 'remembrances' on this blag?

People do good stuff. People do bad stuff. People die. Who cares.

From the Green Belt Movement web site:
Wangari Maathai on AIDS
âNo one can underestimate the challenge that the tragedy of HIV/AIDS puts before all countries. Nowhere has the devastation been greater than in sub-Saharan Africa. Methods to alleviate the suffering and, hopefully, find a cure require our full commitment. For too long, discussing HIV/AIDS in our communities has been taboo. This must end. We must encourage free and full public debate on the threat. We must be frank about how the HIV virus spreads through unprotected sex or intravenous drug use, and how poverty and inequality between women and men are the major driving forces of the pandemic in Africa. We must also increase access to information, care and treatment. In this decisive and difficult struggle in Africa we need the critical encouragement, support and cooperation from the rest of world so that we win the battle.â

ERV, I promise, when you die I'll put up an obit too, including video. You don't have to be jealous.


To give ERV's comment more serious answer - which it deserves, Wangari Maathai did, in fact, in 2004 recant the Time interview suggestion that HIV might have been manufactured by white people to kill African, and apologized for it. That said, I don't think there's any way to interpret either her Time interview or previous remarks as anything other than totally wrong on HIV. That she did publically recant is better, and the Green Belt's statement is broadly correct, but it is certainly destructive to the credibility of people trying to prevent HIV to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner advancing HIV denialism. I don't think there's the slightest doubt that this was a stupid-ass thing to have said. Does it make her unworthy of admiration? I don't think so, personally - most people say stupid-ass destructive things at times, including those who have a major public platform.

It is news to me that no HIV researcher or advocate has ever won a major award. I rather thought there were quite a few, actually.


I'm glad you are remembering Wangari Maathai. She did amazing things for her community, and the larger environment, and her books are wonderful reading. I've heard her interviewed a number of times, and she always has a great message.

For those nit-picking on one comment she made in 71 years, they are truly missing the bigger picture of her life. It's too bad this commentary has been taken up with that, instead of her phenomenal environmental work, and the persecution she suffered at the hands of her own government for it.

Sally, I don't think it is a nit - but I also don't think that to be heroic you have to be perfect.


Hrm. How come this isn't a headline among any of the intellectuals in the west who have bothered to waste column inches on Maathai: HIV/AIDS Denialist/All around conspiracy theorist/ who also eked out a Nobel Peace Prize finally does the world a favor?

Incidentally, Maathai such I can parse the words, never recanted her HIV/AIDS accusations (what, a black chick accuses the HIV/AIDS researches of genocide, and it's somehow peachy keen, or not worth raking her ass over the coals?). Shooing the problem away with some PR work isn't a recantation, nor anywhere near an adult method of apologizing for being fatally wrong.

Further, Abbie did not write that no HIV/AIDS researcher has ever received a single major award. She said, as is apparently beyond your readings skills, there are thousands of people of all ages, genders, races (a dubious slip of the tongue there I dare say) and income levels working to stop HIV/AIDS. Where is their awards? Where are their accolades? Nowhere. In other words, a CTit-ty (explained below) gets one of the most prestigious (supposedly anyway) awards on the planet for, in part, her work in spreading the message that HIV is the white man trying to kill the black man. Back on the farm, thousands of people the world over are working to unfuck that damage. Yet she's honored, while casting aspersions on them.

You're a smart one. I can just tell it.

I'll translate: thousands of people during Dr. Maathai's lifetime were working to identify the cause, method of transmission and in the long term hopefully find a way to stop HIV/AIDS. What's Maathai do? Conspiracy theory it. We should just call that phenomenon CTit.

It is a small error, but an important one. Maathai did not wear many hats - it was all one hat.

No, it's many hats despite your lame attempt to make some grandiose poetic bon voyage.

So, she did some things of note. Some small subset of them were good. Some small subset of them were bad. Right now, today, there are people working on environmental conservation no doubt in part, large part for all I know, because of her. Also today there are people dying in abject misery because she's told them that HIV/AIDS is disease the white man is inflicting on the black man. One wonders how eagerly they'll accept treatment by those western, white doctors trying to cure them of the illness these poor souls just know gave it to them in the first place.

But hey. You're fine with all of that.

You know, I find it interesting that the critique of Maathai seems to depend on minimizing her actual work - which focused on helping hungry people get access to food. Can we maybe agree that keeping people from starving is also important work, along with HIV research?

Maathai's actual words in response to the criticism of her Time comments:

"I have warned people against false beliefs and misinformation such as attributing this disease to a curse from God or believing that sleeping with a virgin cures the infection. These prevalent beliefs in my region have led to an upsurge in rape and violence against children. It is within this context, also complicated by the cultural and religious perspective, that I often speak. I have therefore been shocked by the ongoing debate generated by what I am purported to have said. It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive."

I had not read the reply Maathai's response to the criticism of the Time remarks but it seems in character to me, particularly since she seemed to be irritated by all the religiousity attributed to her work. The statement you post seems to be in line with previous statements by Maathai over the years and highlights her dissatisfaction with all the religious meddling in getting things done.

I agree that her principle focus was getting people fed and that overrides anything else she may or may not have believed, in my opinion. I will miss her even tho I never had the priviledge of knowing her directly.

In never bn to africa neither lived thea you cant appreciate what Wangari Maathai did for Kenya.Whatever she said of HIV she was entitled to say bcoz none of you has bn denied freedom of speech.Until you see how HIV has ravaged through africa & tag of war to access ARVs then probably you can fathom her words.The west had to wait until countries declared HIV a national disaster did they step in.
Wangari Maathai is our Kenyan hero in death & life why didnt you cowards critic her while she was alive u wait until she is dead thats the most unfair but i guess you cant understand problems of the third world bcoz the west not only did you colonize but you raped africa of her resources to this day effects are still felt.If we still had the looted resources we could take care of our HIV ,cancer but a white missionary with a bible & gun on the other hand whom we welcomed in our midst became the trojan horse frm which colonization,ungodly western cultures,destruction of environment to make way for settlement,farming & towns stemed.

By Joe wa Muthoni (not verified) on 07 Oct 2011 #permalink