The AMISTAD Spirit: Wangari Maathai and the Nobel Peace Prize

The AMISTAD Spirit: Wangari Maathai and the Nobel Peace Prize

Paper presented at the Symposium--"Wangari Maathai: Visionary, Environmental Leader, Political Activist and Educator"
Brooklyn College, Student Center, Gold Room
Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké Okome, Ph.D.
Professor of Political Science
Brooklyn College, CUNY
March 28, 2012

In 1901, Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross and won the first Nobel Peace Prize.  According to the organizers, "The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded 92 times to 124 Nobel Laureates between 1901 and 2011– 99 times to individuals and 23 times to organizations."  The names and the dates of the awards are found here:


When Wangari Maathai was honored with the Nobel Peace Award in 2004, for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace, I was personally excited.  But the award evoked many critical responses from people, some who thought that Africans have never received the award for contributions to the sciences, and others who considered a Peace Award incongruent with environmentalism, and yet others who thought Wangari Maathai ought not to have been given the award since there were others more deserving.  I saw the award as important enough that I encouraged my co-editors of Jenda: Journal of African Culture and Women Studies to publish a piece commemorating the laudable achievements of this singularly accomplished African woman.

When her award was announced, I wrote the following tribute to Professor Maathai, and in 2005, when I tried to invite her to Brooklyn College to come and speak with us, I forwarded it to Ms. Bettie Githinji, who did her scheduling.

Professor Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who was just awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004 is a trailblazer, a great daughter of Africa whom we should all emulate.  I was lucky enough to hear her speak about two years ago here in Brooklyn, New York.  I was greatly honored to meet and speak with her.

 Professor Maathai is humble, thoughtful, intelligent and visionary.  She richly deserves this prize and all the accolades received thus far, and should even have gained more recognition before now.  The African environment is endangered, assaulted by the unelightened triple coalition of transnational capital, multilateral organizations (like the IMF and World Bank), and the African state.

 Many of us, even when concerned, give up and throw up our arms and do nothing because we don't know where to begin, or we don't want to suffer, or we don't want to be unpopular.  Professor Maathai, by founding and leading the Greenbelt movement and mobilizing mostly African women to plant millions of trees all around the continent, demonstrates that one woman that refuses to be intimidated, refuses to be cowed, refuses to back down in the face of a brutal, oppressive state such as that led by Daniel arap Moi's Kenya, can change the world.

Let us all laud and congratulate this noble daughter of Africa, and let us all find one or the other way of following her example (Okome email to, Wed. Jan 26, 2005).

In 2010 when I was awarded the Amistad Prize for contributions to international education at Central Connecticut State University, I was asked to present a paper on the Amistad.  The Barack Obama Nobel Peace Prize was the hot button issue at the time.  It evoked some of the same responses as the Maathai Nobel, although with significantly louder sound and fury.  I chose then to write a paper on the Amistad spirit and its significance to the first person of African descent to win the award, Ralph Bunche, the first woman of African descent, Wangari Maathai, and the first Black President of the US to win the award, Barack Obama.  

Today, I am glad that the trail that was blazed by Wangari Maathai has now been followed by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia who won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011.  I gave some thought to what the Amistad means to me in the paper on Bunche, Maathai and Obama, and have extracted this current paper from that longer one.  As I see it, the Amistad symbolizes in the first place, the indomitable human spirit.  It is indicative of a spirit of resistance in the most difficult circumstances, a resistance of oppression, captivity, abuse, inhumanity, slavery of body, spirit and consciousness.  All these qualities and more can be found in the historical events that occurred beginning in 1839 and continuing today, as an inspiration to us all, to commit or re-dedicate our lives to resistance against oppression as well as building the kinds of community and world where racial and other kinds of discrimination and oppression are a thing of the past.


In the 19th Century, La Amistad (Spanish: "Friendship") gained historical significance as the setting for the determination of Africans to resist captivity.  Seen in the light of today’s transnationality, the ship was very interesting, as it had multiple identities/origins/affiliations. This two-masted schooner was constructed in the United States and  was owned by a Spaniard resident in Cuba.  It plied the high seas, and in the incident that made it famous, it was transporting Sengbe Pieh, also known as Joseph Cinqué and fifty six fellow Africans (52 adults and 4 children) from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba.  On July 1, 1839, Sengbe led a rebellion in which the Africans took control of the ship.  The Africans seized the ship, killed the captain and the cook, and ordered the planters to sail to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the Amistad was seized off Long Island, NY, by the U.S. brig Washington. Unfortunately, they were tricked by Don Pedro Montez, the ship's navigator, whose life they had spared, and whom they depended upon to help them get back home, and instead, ended up at the eastern tip of Long Island, New York. 

On August 24, 1839, while some of the former captives were negotiating with two men on the shore, still trying to get back home, a United States Revenue Cutter Service ship, USS Washington saw the schooner and took custody. The Africans were brought to Connecticut for sale into slavery.  In the legal wrangle that ensued, La Amistad came to symbolize the abolitionist movement’s efforts.  In an 1841 case that began in New Haven, Connecticut, but went all the way to the US Supreme Court, a determination had to be made about the status of the Africans, since the importation of slaves had been banned in the US since 1808.

In order to perpetrate the fraud that would enable them profit from selling the Africans, La Amistad’s owners said that Sengbe and the 56 Africans were born in Cuba.  In reality, the Africans had been captured in Mende country in what is today’s Sierra Leone.  They were then transported to Cuba on the slave ship Tecora.  The court had to decide the status of the Africans and 2 Spaniards.  While the Spaniards were freed, the Africans were kept in jail in New Haven, Connecticut.  They were charged with murder.  These charges were dismissed but the following questions were considered important as well: were they “salvage and the property of Naval officers who had taken custody of the ship?”  Were they “the property of the Cuban buyers or of Spain as Queen Isabella II of Spain claimed?” Or were they to be considered free due to “the circumstances of their capture and transportation?”

President Van Buren was in favor of extraditing the Africans to Cuba. However, abolitionists in the North opposed extradition and raised money to defend the Africans. Claims to the Africans by the Southern planters, the government of Spain, and the captain of the brig led the case to trial in the Federal District Court in Connecticut. The court ruled that the case fell within Federal jurisdiction and that the claims to the Africans as property were not legitimate because they were illegally held as slaves. The case went to the Supreme Court in January 1841, and former President John Quincy Adams argued the defendants' case. Adams defended the right of the accused to fight to regain their freedom. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1841 that the transportation and captivity of the Africans was illegal.  It ordered their freedom.  In 1842, the survivors, of this ordeal (now only 35 people) returned to Africa.

The decision of the Supreme Court was written and read by Senior Justice Joseph Story. The Court ruled in the first place, that Cinque and the other Africans aboard the Amistad were free, since they had been kidnapped and transported illegally, meaning that while they had been treated as such, in truth, they were not slaves, and had never been.

As often happens with legal matters, this too was a political decision.  Justice Story reportedly wrote before the Amistad ruling that ". . . it was the ultimate right of all human beings in extreme cases to resist oppression, and to apply force against ruinous injustice," but according to the opinion expressed in this case, there was a very narrow support for the right of the Amistad Africans to resist "unlawful" slavery.  We should also bear in mind that at the same time, chattel slavery was a fact of life for many Africans in America ( n.d.).

Eleven people of African descent have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Here are their names and the dates given, in reverse chronological order. 
·     2009 - Barack H. Obama *
·     2004 - Wangari Maathai *
·     2001 - United Nations, Kofi Annan *
·     1984 - Desmond Tutu *
·     1964 - Martin Luther King Jr. *
·     1960 - Albert Lutuli*
·     1950 - Ralph Bunche *
Today, we have Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee as the latest recipient and Ralph Bunche as the earliest.  Although it would have been much more interesting to apply my Amistad analysis to all nine, in this paper, I focus on the first African woman recipient.  However, from Ralph Bunche to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, each and every person of African descent that has been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize is connected to the Amistad Africans’ struggle for human dignity, freedom and human rights.  Now I will focus my remarks almost exclusively on the woman we’re honoring today (at the Brooklyn College Symposium), Professor Wangari Muta Maathai.


In 2004, Dr. (Mama) Wangari Muta Maathai was awarded the Peace Prize "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace" (The Nobel Peace Prize 2004 Wangari Muta Maathai).  I deliberately repeat myself in saying that she was the first woman of African descent to win the Peace Prize.  I say as well that she was the first Sub Saharan African woman to win a Nobel.
On April 1, 1940, Wangari Muta was born in Ihithe village, Tetu Division, Nyeri District in Kenya.  She has the distinction of being the first woman to earn a doctoral degree from East and Central Africa.  Her tertiary education began at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, from which she graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences in 1964.  She went on to the University of Pittsburgh and graduated with an M.Sc. in 1966.  Her Ph.D. training began in Germany and was concluded at the University of Nairobi in 1971. 
Mama Maathai’s teaching career commenced at the University of Nairobi as a Lecturer in veterinary anatomy, and later, Chair of the Department and Associate professor.  She was also the first woman in each instance to rise to these positions.  She had to fight the male dominated professoriate at the University of Nairobi to secure equity and justice for women who were marginalized in that scholarly community.  This is no surprise, since Wangari Maathai was a social and political activist.  She was a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya from 1976-87, and despite government intrigues to subvert her, became its chairman from 1981-87.  
Mama Wangari Maathai was an environmental activist long before the idea became popular.  As with many of her activities, she was a pioneer. Her tree planting idea began in 1976, a response to soil erosion, increased scarcity of fuelwood and deforestation, all of which put increased pressure on women who sought to guarantee family food security and survival.  She working primarily with women to encourage and support as well as advocate and implement the planting of trees for environmental conservation and subsistence and income generation.  Her work in this area created the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which by the date of the Nobel, had spread to other African countries to form the Pan African Green Belt Network. Members came from Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and other African countries.  As a result of the work of the Network, women and men throughout the continent were motivated to plant more than 35 million trees. 
Mama Wangari’s activism continued in her involvement with the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, and she co-chaired the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign from September 1998.  The campaign worked for the cancellation of the heavy debts owed by African countries to the rich industrialized countries like the US and its European allies by the year 2000.  She also had active interest in Kenyan politics where she campaigned against land grabbing and the enclosure of the commons by rich and powerful cronies of the political elite through allotments of forest land without concern for the environmental effects or the interests of the majority of Kenyans. 
Mama Maathai’s activist politics in promotion and defense of democracy, and environmental integrity as well as her public leadership of protests and demonstrations, sometimes using indigenous women’s methods of resistance to oppression such as stripping naked, led to physical assault, jail terms and vilification inflicted upon her the Kenyan state under the  Daniel arap Moi administration.  She did not give up.  In 1977, her husband left her, and the separation became permanent with a public and painful divorce in 1979.  Her public responses in an interview to the patriarchal decision of the court led to the judge sentencing her to a six-month prison term.  She sued and was freed after serving three days.  Maathai was broke from the divorce expenses, and pushed into further economic insecurity by the Moi government, which found her activism in defense of women’s and environmental rights and democracy distasteful. However, while also looking, Maathai continued her international activism on women’s rights, social, economic, and political justice, environmental integrity and human rights continued to gain prominence and recognition.  She was honored with numerous awards, as well as honorary doctoral degrees.
In December 2002, Mama Wangari Maathai secured 98% of the vote as an elected member of the Kenyan national parliament, representing Tetu constituency in Nyeri district.  She was later appointed Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife (Tore Frängsmyr 2005 ).  Mama Maathai rejected the appointment after the Mwai Kibaki-led government lost a constitutional referendum in 2005 (Nobel Laureate - Wangari Maathai May Lose In Elections 2007). In August 2006, she met Senator Barack Obama, who was visiting Kenya.  Obama’s father was a Kenyan that was also a beneficiary of the same scholarship that enabled Mama Maathai to study in the US.  In 2007, she ran to represent her constituency and lost.  Her GBM work has continued.
Professor Ole Danbolt Mjøs, Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, justified its selection of Mama Maathai in the Presentation Speech on December 10, 2004 by making a linkage between peace and the environment thus: 
Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She has taken a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular. She thinks globally and acts locally…. You have shown what it means to be a true African mother and a true African woman. Kenya admires you! Africa admires you! The world admires you! May your unceasing fight for the right always remain a source of inspiration for mankind.
Mjøs anticipated Obama’s aspirational characterization of his Nobel when he said about Maathai’s:
Your name will figure prominently in the history of the Peace Prize, together with the other African Peace Prize Laureates: Albert Lutuli, Anwar Sadat, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Fredrik Willem de Klerk and Kofi Annan. We hope the Peace Prize may be an inspiration for positive change in your beloved Kenya, in Africa, and in the many countries in the world that need to hear your voice. 
Your goal is to protect God's creation "so that this earth can become the Garden of Eden that God created". From 1950 to 2000, Kenya lost 90 per cent of its forests. You founded the Green Belt Movement, in which over a period of nearly thirty years you have mobilised poor women to plant thirty million trees. Your methods have also been adopted in other countries. We are all witnesses to how deforestation and forest loss have led to desertification in Africa and threatened many other regions of the world – also in Europe. Protecting forests to stop desertification is a major step towards strengthening our common global environment. Through education, family planning, nutrition, and the fight against corruption, the Green Belt Movement is creating conditions for development at grass-root level.
The paths to peace are multiple and varied.  The Nobel Committee has always given a broad conceptual definition of peace, as affirmed by the wide variety of individuals and organizations selected for the Nobel Peace Prize, including
Statesmen and politicians…at the international, the regional and the national level…. Major humanitarian organizations, and individuals engaged in humanitarian work…. promoting the "fraternity between nations" of which Alfred Nobel speaks in his will…. those who have worked for disarmament or arms control [whose work] relate directly to the "abolition or reduction of standing armies" that Nobel also mentions. In recent decades, the Nobel Committee has made human rights a central element of the definition of peace. There were many warnings against such a broadening of the concept of peace. Today there are few things peace researchers and other scholars are readier to agree on than precisely that democracy and human rights advance peace. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has believed so for over forty years, if not indeed much longer.
While the incongruity of the Obama Nobel seemed clear to observers and pundits, Maathai’s Nobel also generated some puzzlement, and the Committee sought to explain why someone whose activism had been predominantly in the area of environmental activism could be said to have contributed to world peace.  It was clear that the Committee “evidently broadened its definition of peace still further. Environmental protection has become yet another path to peace.”   Although Mama Wangari Maathai had also made noteworthy efforts to democracy, human rights, and women's rights, she was by no means a household name to all and sundry worldwide.  Neither were some earlier Laureates.
The Nobel Committee was emphatic in its insistence that peace and the environment are connected.  There is evidence that such a relationship exists where conflicts on access to scarce resources like oil, water, minerals or timber erupt and persist. It gave the example of the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia and Brazil, arguing that ecological issues can also cause conflict, as with Darfur, where the desert increasingly encroaches on the grazing lands for Arab nomads.  The conflict between nomads and farmers is as much driven by this phenomenon as by any other cause.  The Philippines, Chiapas, Mexico, Haiti, Amazonas, and the Himalayas have all experienced the deleterious effects of environmental degradation, causing tension between people, groups and nations.  
According to Mama Maathai, inequitable access to the world’s resources contributes to tensions and conflicts locally, nationally and globally.  While at the time of her Nobel, the world was not convinced that she was right, the Nobel Committee agreed with her and expressed confidence that …within a few decades, when researchers have developed more comprehensive analyses of many of the world's conflicts, the relation between the environment, resources and conflict may seem almost as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy and peace.”  As well, international cooperation is necessary for the resolution of environmental problems.  The planting of trees is a concrete expression of commitment to peace, and the involvement of African women is a continuation of their contribution to development.
The Committee also expressed the hope that Wangari Maathai would lead the struggle to combat HIV/AIDS, educational disparities that favor boys over girls, and foster optimism that the continent’s problems can be solved  (The Nobel Peace Prize 2004 Wangari Muta Maathai 2004;  Tore Frängsmyr 2005).
Mama Waathai’s speech like Obama’s, recognized that many people who work the hardest get neither acknowledgment nor affirmation.  She also acknowledged the debt owed to the people of Kenya who maintained the stubborn hope that democracy and environmental integrity are possible, and were ready to fight for them, in addition to “African Peace laureates, Presidents Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the late Chief Albert Luthuli, the late Anwar el-Sadat and the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan.” According to her:

Although this prize comes to me, it acknowledges the work of countless individuals and groups across the globe. They work quietly and often without recognition to protect the environment, promote democracy, defend human rights and ensure equality between women and men. By so doing, they plant seeds of peace. I know they, too, are proud today. To all who feel represented by this prize I say use it to advance your mission and meet the high expectations the world will place on us.

Echoing the Nobel Committee’s assessment that linkage between the environment, democracy and peace has not yet been recognized by the world, she lauded their “visionary action”, hoping that the world would recognize “that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible” and the world should engage the reduction of conflicts and poverty and consequent improvements in the quality of life of ordinary people as serious challenges.  Democratic governance, human rights and environmental integrity are crucial and can be addressed by ordinary people.  

The power of Mama Maathai’s childhood socialization and experiences as well as her formal education inspired her interest in nature.  She also questioned the destructive practices of mainstream development initiatives that replaced peasant farms with agribusiness and replaced food production with the production of exports in a manner that “destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water.”  Mama Maathai was also moved to establish the Green Belt Movement in 1977 to respond “to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.”  According to her, the world could learn much from rural women who in the course of fulfilling their family responsibilities and meeting basic needs, like canaries in the mine, give advance warning of “environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.  The terms of trade are also skewed against Africa, affecting poor peasant farmers who are denied a just income and human dignity.  Worse still, “when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations.”

Planting trees has a practical impact because it allows women to meet the basic needs they identify.  It is a simple, exercise that can be accomplished by anyone, and which can produce speedy results.  Trees “provide fuel, food, shelter, and income… employment and improve[ment in] soils and watersheds.”  Women are also able to take charge of their lives, with positive impacts on their socioeconomic situation and family well-being.  Wangari Maathai’s work in leading the GBM is even more transformational because it inspired poor African women to recognize that they have “knowledge and skills” to solve their problems instead of looking to the outside world.  She was also able to demonstrate that environmental well-being is connected to the basic needs of people being met, peace, security and sustainable development.

The GBM’s work also includes citizen education to help:

people identify their problems, the causes and possible solutions… make connections between their own personal actions and the problems they witness in the environment and in society… learn that our world is confronted with a litany of woes: corruption, violence against women and children, disruption and breakdown of families, and disintegration of cultures and communities…. identify the abuse of drugs and chemical substances, especially among young people….  devastating diseases that are defying cures or occurring in epidemic proportions. Of particular concern are HIV/AIDS, malaria and diseases associated with malnutrition.

People are also able to take action to help themselves.  They can also insist on accountability from their governments.  In their personal relationships, they are also encouraged to “exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust”.  The GBM also saw the connection between democracy, peace, and “responsible governance of the environment.”  Connecting with Kikuyu and other African customs that consider trees symbols of peace, GBM began mobilizing Kenyans to plant peace trees to push for peaceful democratic transition, respect for human rights, good governance and environmental integrity. Thus,

in Nairobi's Uhuru Park, at Freedom Corner, and in many parts of the country, trees of peace were planted to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy… the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace.

For Maathai and the GBM, cultural heritage such as that found among the Kikuyu and other Africans can motivate people to engage in conservation and peacebuilding, but if cultures are driven to extinction by the imposition or indiscriminate adoption of “new values, local biodiversity is no longer valued or protected and as a result, it is quickly degraded and disappears. For this reason, The Green Belt Movement explores the concept of cultural biodiversity, especially with respect to indigenous seeds and medicinal plants.”

In 2002, Kenya had a peaceful transition to a democracy, but the struggle continues. Humanity as a whole must develop “a new level of consciousness, …reach a higher moral ground….shed our fear and give hope to each other.  The challenge for Africa is to recognize the urgency of the need to nurture democratic government, expand “democratic and peaceful space”, as well as guarantee environmental integrity and sustainable development.
Education, skills, power and experience are privileges that should be used to influence positive change and mentor succeeding generations to be better leaders.  Culture, being central to politics, economy and social well being,  is also dynamic can be a force for positive change.  “Africans, especially, should re-discover positive aspects of their culture. In accepting them, they would give themselves a sense of belonging, identity and self-confidence.”

Civil society and grassroots movements should become catalysts to change.  Governments should recognize their role in fostering the development of responsible citizenship that demands and works for checks and balances in society.  Citizens should struggle for their rights as well as embrace their responsibilities.

Socially conscious investment should be embraced by owners of capital and industry.  Global institutions should foster “economic justice, equity and ecological integrity” and realize that they are more valuable than “profits at any cost.” 

The world should also fight against “extreme global inequities” including consumption patterns that “continue at the expense of the environment and peaceful co-existence.”

The youth should dare to dream and work to actualize their vision for a better world that is committed to sustainable, holistic development in “a world of beauty and wonder” (Maathai 2004).

The commitment to peace is clearly a thread that runs through the Maathai vision of the world. 

Casting our minds back to the Amistad and all people of African descent who have had their contributions to world peace acknowledged, Ralph Bunche, Albert Lutuli, Anwar Sadat, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Kofi Annan, and Wangari Maathai, Barack Obama, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee have been motivated by hope, faith, and a belief that nothing is impossible.  In like manner, the Amistad Africans believed in the possibility of freedom even though their situation seemed hopeless.  Bunche believed world peace and the end to inequality as well as man’s inhumanity to man was possible.  Lutuli was oppressed by Apartheid but he remained unbowed, uncompromised in his resistance and in the leadership of a movement to end Apartheid.  Sadat worked assiduously for an end to the Middle East crisis.  King advocated non-violence as a weapon against institutionalized racism in the United States, Mandela took the baton in the resistance against Apartheid.  He led a resistance movement that faced a hegemonic force, and spent the better part of his life in jail.  The triumph against this evil system did not come immediately.  But one of the first steps toward redressing the scourge came in his lifetime—a democratic South Africa, with a Human Rights driven constitution. Desmond Tutu also contributed the better part of his life to the struggle against Apartheid.  A man of the cloth, he decided to stand on the side of the oppressed and preach the gospel of liberation from the oppression of Apartheid, at great cost to himself and his family.  Kofi Annan, as Secretary General of the United Nations also contributed his quota to the service of humanity in the quest for peace.  Leymah Gbowee and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led in movements by women that insisted that the war in Liberia had to end.  Ellen Johnson Sirleaf went on to campaign for, and win two elections for the Presidency of Liberia.
Mama Maathai, the first woman of African descent to be honored with the Peace Prize, was uncompromising and fierce in her opposition to domestic patriarchal abuses, and patriarchal state injustice and oppression in Kenya.  In her public activism, she saw the need to respond to the challenge of environmental degradation and took it on, inspiring others to join the Greenbelt Movement.  She also fought against the human rights abuses and injustices perpetrated by the Kenyan state, demonstrating and being arrested, physically assaulted and jailed frequently. Unlike most women who succumb to the pressure of keeping spousal abuse under wraps, Mama Maathai publicly declared that she was a battered woman, and had the courage to divorce her abusive husband. 
That the Nobel Peace laureates accomplished all they did is not to say that all the problems they confronted are solved, but that they contributed, each in a little way to the building block of making a better world.  These are not perfect people.  No human being is.  We should be aware that the laureates are not necessarily the most deserving of the prize.  Maathai said this in her speech, as did Barack Obama.  There are always people out there that are more deserving, but many do not get noticed.  Sometimes it takes connections and belonging in the right networks to be selected for awards.  Sometimes the award of prizes is indicative of high level political decision making, sometimes even, undeserving people win awards.  Sometimes, awards are aspirational.  However, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the contributions of this Kenyan and African woman to world peace. 

Peace is still an intractable process.  The waging of war still continues to be connected to the expectation that peace would be generated thereby, especially by powerful countries. Does the world want peace?  Does the Nobel Peace Prize contribute to the achievement of this seemingly ephemeral condition?  I cannot engage these questions in this paper.  I leave the questions to posterity and to others who should consider these fundamental questions.

Although I am a pacifist, Obama’s just war principle as articulated in his Nobel speech would be a good fight if fought in light of the Amistad Africans’ struggle, Ralph Bunche’s negotiations in the interest of world peace, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee’s work on peacebuilding in Liberia, Wangari Maathai’s GBM.  To the extent that the just war is defined as a war to rid the world of injustice, a war to redress wrongs inflicted by an aggressor on the weak and powerless, a war to challenge the oppression of the powerful vis a vis the weak and defenseless, it might be acceptable to use violence in the cause of liberation.  This is the Amistad story.  Sengbe Pieh and his fellow captives struck out for their freedom but had to kill the captain and most of the crew of the slave ship in order to gain their freedom. The GBM is a peaceful but determined effort to interject the voices of the weak and marginalized into the discourse of politics and power in Kenya through the planting of trees, in the first place, for reasons of ecological, economic and environmental balance and integrity; and later to make a statement about the need for peace in Kenyan politics, and finally to express hope in a better future.  Confronting discrimination against women faculty in the University of Kenya, Nairobi, Wangari stood for equity. Confronting an abusive spouse, she took the divorce option, maintained her dignity through the spousal attempt to publicly humiliate her, and had to seek employment that offered better remuneration, was forced to leave her children with her husband because the job (with the UNECA) was based in Lusaka, Zambia, and she had to travel extensively and constantly. She also confronted the discriminatory ethnic politics and state repression under Daniel arap Moi in Kenya, Maathai had to face state-sponsored brutality by security forces.  She never gave up, she balanced and juggled multiple challenges and responsibilities, ever diligent, ever optimistic, ever focused on doing even better, in situations that would have driven most others out of their minds.

Wangari’s life and work raise the question: How can peace be achieved in this turbulent world?  Neither Wangari Maathai, nor the GBM, nor the Nobel Peace Prize can guarantee world peace.  Neither would persuade skeptics that there is genuine interest in fostering a peace where swords are beaten into ploughshares and humanity would commit itself to warring no more.  Until we are able to connect with the spirit that turns its back on war and the problems that attend it, human beings would continue to find justifications for the use of violence. Perceived aggressors would be attacked by those who label them as such.  The lesson from the Amistad is that posterity sometimes vindicates those who struggle for their freedom. 

Wangari Maathai was persona non grata in Kenya for much of the period that she led the founding of the GBM, and while she assiduously struggled for democratization in Kenya.  That struggle also continues, as does the struggle to respect and nurture the environment in stewardship for future generations.  She has now passed on, but the legacy she leaves behind is distinguished and stellar. 

To honor Wangari Maathai’s legacy, we must all believe that we can strive for a better world.  We must all dare to contribute to its actualization.  Within the limits of their capabilities, the Amistad Africans and Nobelist Peace laureates of African descent have attempted to grapple with these challenges.  Wangari Maathai lived true to the principles she espoused.  She did so with a lot of bravery, valor, dignity and energy.  In doing what she did, she connected to the best of what the Amistad Africans stood for, since in the midst of great adversity and capriciousness, they confronted their oppressors and fought valiantly for their freedom, humanity and dignity.

Thank you.

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Okome,  Mojúbàolú Olúfúnké email to:, date: Wed, Jan 26, 2005 at 7:36 AM; Subject: Could Professor Wangari Maathai give a presentation at Brooklyn College?
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Gloria Emeagwali, Professor of History at Central Connecticut State University, New Britain interviewed me at home after the event at Brooklyn College on Wednesday, March 28, 2012.  You can access the video at the following link:


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