Beyond the Nobel Peace Prize

New biographies reveal Wangari Maathai as a reflective scholar and critical thinker.

Wangari Maathai mural in San Francisco. Image credit Phil Dokas via Flickr CC.

In 2004, when Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” I was in my final year of primary school. Until then, I had largely grown up ignorant about her work. Our history books only mentioned the heroes of pre-independent Kenya, and even then, the contribution of women went largely unrecorded. However, when Maathai won the prize, the magnitude of her life began to filter into my education: here was the first African woman to win a Nobel.

But Maathai was more than an environmental activist and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. She was also a human being who encountered immense struggles in her personal and professional life, an intellectual who developed a rich scholarship on leadership, citizenship, and women’s empowerment. Two new publications invite readers to consider Maathai’s life beyond the Nobel Peace Prize and the environmental activism for which she is best known: Tabitha Kanogo’s Wangari Maathai and Besi Brillian Muhonja’s Radical Utu: Critical Ideas and Ideals of Wangari Muta Maathai.

Kanogo’s Wangari Maathai is a short biography that focuses on different facets of Maathai’s personal and professional life. Kanogo reminds us of Maathai’s beginnings, from her early educational years in Ihithe Primary School, to the corridors of Mount St. Scholastica College, where she earned her first degree. The biography highlights the early achievements that decorated Maathai’s life. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD. The first female professor and head of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. She was a woman of many firsts, a fact that Kanogo sums up by noting that Maathai “was peerless, so she had to set standards for herself.”

Kanogo also writes about the struggles that Maathai faced in her life, particularly the attacks on her womanhood and her activism. Maathai underwent a bitter divorce trial and faced harassment from the Kenyan government. One of her most well-known run-ins with the government was during a 1989 protest against the government’s plan to erect a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, one of the only green spaces in the city. She sought both international and local support to stall the project, efforts that led to her castigation by political leaders. She was even vilified by the premier women’s organization of the time, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, which censured her to “respect men and be quiet.”

While Kanogo provides a concise history of Maathai’s struggles and triumphs, Muhonja pulls back the veil on Maathai the scholar. She challenges the reader to look beyond the environmental activism and to acknowledge Maathai the “scholar and a critical thinker.” Muhonja sums up Maathai’s ideas and ideals using the concept of radical utu—a philosophy and practice in which individuals and communities exercise “equity and honor for the humanity of others and for their environments.” Muhonja writes that Maathai’s scholarship pushed for the adoption of radical utu, a consciousness that she personally embodied in her approaches to environmental activism, women’s rights, citizenship, and leadership.

Muhonja writes that “Maathai suggested that human beings should be in a constant quest for knowledge about their environments in order to manage it justly and sustainably and also so that they can fully access their own humanness.” On women’s empowerment, radical utu is manifested through seeing women as humans first before focusing on their womanhood. Radical utu also gives room for the simultaneous use of the female body and female identities in political struggle. On citizenship and leadership, Muhonja notes how Maathai’s scholarship calls for active citizenship and innovative, consultative, service-based leadership. This model subsequently leads to an utu-centered democratic space characterized by peace, security, equitable distribution of resources, and acceptance of ethnic and national identities.

Maathai did not just advance radical utu; she modeled it, for example, by leading communities in ecological renewal through the planting of millions of trees, and fighting alongside mothers in Kenya whose children were detained by the government. Throughout her life, Maathai embodied a conscientious humanity that looked out “for the general good of the world.”

Seeing Maathai beyond the Nobel Peace Prize is seeing the radical utu of Maathai’s life. Read together, these two books urge one to move beyond a passive admiration of Maathai’s life into an active engagement with the principles that moved her to fight for environmental protection, women’s empowerment, and democracy. The call of Maathai’s radical utu is the call on all of us to become “agents of change toward democratic spaces and sustainable development.”

In the face of today’s struggles, from the precarity of democracy and police brutality to the debasement of Black life, Maathai’s radical utu provides impetus for a relentless activism that considers the humanity of others and that exercises respect and honor for their environments.

Further Reading

In Praise of Wangari Maathai

By Dan Moshenberg

Wangari Maathai passed this week. The news of her passing inspired memories, praise, and reflection, especially among those who knew and worked with her, and among those Kenyans who grew up watching her …