Wangari Maathai: A Look into Sustainability and Colonialism
Wangari Maathai helped decolonize Kenya by teaching women not just how to plant trees, but she educated them on the entire process of harvesting seeds and maintaining their plant life in order to continue living off the land. By educating women specifically, she was able to give women the knowledge and, consequently, the freedom to sustain themselves without falling financially dependent upon men. Under Maathai’s Green Belt Movement, women in Kenya were empowered in the sense that they were now able to grow their own food and feed their families–women could feed starving children in the face of financial hardship, which directly correlates with Maathai’s story about her kids asking for snacks one day at the pool.
Not only were these newly planted trees great for the community, but they were great for the ecosystem. As European colonizers forced their way into their lands and homes and stripped the land of its lush forests and green space for their own economic gain and personal land use, the ecosystems were deteriorating rapidly; just as the beginning of Taking Root demonstrates, the destruction of just one fig tree could directly impact a stream of which an entire group of people depended upon for clean water. Colonization kick-started a domino effect of adverse ecosystem degradations throughout Kenya that was especially devastating considering that the Kenyan communities survived off of the land itself and its ecosystem services: the health of the people was determined by the health of the land.
When Maathai stepped in and educated women (a vastly underlooked population), the Kenyans were able to reclaim their land by returning forests to their natural, biodiverse states to produce clean food, water, and shelter for their communities. Maathai was able to foster food security among the Kenyans and in the most natural, sustainable way there is. Additionally, civic empowerment and women’s rights are particularly important for developing countries even today–by educating women and teaching them how to support themselves, they are able to spend more time of their early lives in schools before being forced into marriages for money to survive, thus closing some of their reproductive window so they don’t have to have kids so early (which ultimately causes them to have less kids, which decreases the birth rate of the entire population over time: educating women can play a crucial role in controlling population growth in developing countries). Maathai’s work in the Green Belt Movement helps both women and the environment thrive in the face of colonialism.
The colonizers of Kenya in Taking Root were tearing down the land and disrupting the peace and way of life of the Kenyans who were previously living in harmony with the land and its natural resources. However, these natural resources were only seen as commodities to be taken and sold for profit by the colonizers. This economic greed is what would fuel Europeans and Americans into the plantation mindset as capitalism and industrialization took root in the Western world. Fortunately, even in more modern times than Maathai’s, we have activists working towards food justice and sustainable solutions to decolonize the perpetuating effects of colonialism. In her own way, Maathai was cultivating food sovereignty by promoting not only access to sustainable and nourishing foods but the knowledge needed to cultivate these foods by the people who needed it the most themselves.
Written by Carole Wilay (’25)