Critiquing Dualism in Christianity through Eco-feminist Lenses: Lessons from Wangari Muta Maathai: Part II

By Albert Billy Bangirana, University of KwaZulu-Natal

This final post in a three-part series reflecting on the sacredness of the earth by the CIHA Blog Luce Graduate Fellow Albert Billy Bangirana[1] analyzes late Nobel Laureate Wangari Muta Maathai’s initiatives towards ecological justice, where new and non-hierarchical patterns of relationships can be created for the good of humanity and nature. Read the first post here and second post here.

Wangari Muta Maathai: Ecological Activist

Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011)[2] was a practical visionary. She seized the opportunity as the chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) with a vision to consolidate the activities of the Green Belt Movement. This proved to be an empowering forum where women participated in the planting of trees replenishing the environment, and sustaining their livelihoods. Maathai used the vastly expanding movement to publicise their activities including “calling for democracy and respect for human rights far and wide.”[3]

In 1985, the United Nations convened in Kenya for the third global women’s conference celebrating the conclusion of the Women’s Decade. Amidst the government’s opposition, Maathai organised an exhibition for the work that the Green Belt Movement was doing, work that was largely conducted by women[4]. During this meeting, the Environmental Liaison Centre, which Maathai chaired, “organised a series of workshops on women and environmental crisis.”[5] Women from Asia, Latin America, United States, Canada, Europe and Africa spoke about environmental challenges and the work they were doing to address them. The United Nations Environmental Programme supported four educational workshops that brought forty-five representatives from fifteen African countries to Kenya. The workshops, seminars and fieldwork culminated into the launching of an African-based network called the African Green Belt Network that spearheaded tree planting projects in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Mozambique.

This expansion generated publicity from the local and international media. Maathai became an icon of environmental liberation. She led a movement that would eventually contribute to the mitigation of the effects of climate change.

Through the relentless work of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai received numerous awards, including the Woman of the Year Award (1983) in Kenya and the Right to Livelihood award (1984) founded by the Swedish writer and parliamentarian Jakob von Uexkull. In 1986, she received the Woman of the Year World Award from the UK-based group Women Aid and the Windstar Award, established by the late American singer and environmentalist, John Denver in 1988. All these awards brought international attention to her efforts as advocate for change in Kenya. They also led her to overcome the barriers creating a safe space for grassroots Kenyan women.

Environmental Justice and the Politics of Patriarchy

In 1989, Maathai rose against governmental plans to build a skyscraper (60 stories) in Uhuru Park at the very heart of Nairobi. This park is famous for its lawns, pathways, a boating lake, an environment for recreation, gatherings, and quiet walks. Maathai took this up as one of her projects in the struggle to save the environment. She mobilized local and international media, wrote letters to government officials as well as international agencies in her struggle to preserve the park.

The Kenyan parliament, a decidedly male-dominated body, debated on this issue, focusing on the conduct of Maathai. Most parliamentarians took to the floor to tarnish the Green Belt Movement as a “bogus organisation.”[6] They accused Maathai of inciting the people against the government. During one of the sessions in parliament, to the cheers of a packed house, one Member of Parliament told the house that because she ‘had supposedly repudiated her husband in public, she could not be taken seriously and that her behaviour had damaged his respect for all women. He accused her of incitement and warned the Green Belt Movement members to tread carefully. He concluded by saying, “I don’t see the sense at all in that bunch of divorcees coming to criticise such a complex project.”[7]

As a consequence, Maathai’s struggle for environmental justice and women’s liberation was cast as sacrilegious and subversive in the kingdom of hetero-normative thought patterns of male hegemony. To the members of parliament who had questioned her reaction because of her gender, Maathai responded that, “in spite of what the members of parliament might think my being a woman was irrelevant.”[8] However, with true optimism Maathai could write:

Journalists from some of the leading American and British newspapers, including the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the United Kingdom’s Independent, among others reported on our struggle. This helped raise awareness among environmentalists and pro-democracy campaigners in Europe and North America. For the first time, many of them were hearing Africans raising their voices to protect their own environment and green spaces. Alerted by some of their citizens, the foreign investors and donor governments now questioned the wisdom of spending such a vast amount of money on a building of dubious usefulness in a poor country that was already struggling with domestic and international debts.[9]

The government finally yielded to the relentless pressure. On January 29, 1990, the government announced that its plans for the complex had changed.[10] This capitulation sent a powerful message to women and men around the country that they could be heard if they raised their voices and expressed what they believed as right not only for themselves but also for the future generations. Maathai’s political resilience and ecological concern offers us an activist-based framework for a holistic and egalitarian eco-spirituality.

Maathai’s Eco-justice Model as an Asset for a Holistic and Egalitarian Eco-spirituality

Maathai’s activist ecological framework originates from the African religio-cultural worldview that embraces “life in its wholeness.”[11] It focuses on the need to preserve nature from human exploitation based on the principle that “God is present in everything and life is sacred.”[12] In her spiritual and social practice, she empowers African women who mostly live from the land in addition to being marginalised in society. Maathai’s spirituality incorporates “traditional spiritual values of love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service.”[13]

These four virtues envisage a holistic eco-spirituality that is informed by harmony as an ideal that should define the relationship between humanity and nature.[14] Maathai’s eco-spirituality is informed by her Christian roots and values from other faiths and traditions. For example she treasures the “Jewish mandate tikkumolam (repair the world)” and “the Japanese axiom mottainai (don’t waste).” Through these values Maathai “believes we might finally bring about healing for ourselves and the earth.”[15]

Drawing from African Traditional Religion, Susan Rakoczy suggests that in the African religious worldview, the relationship between humanity and nature is not of domination but of harmonious co-existence.[16] This harmonious co-existence which has been lost through environmental degradation needs to be restored. An “African eco-spirituality of harmony” should be adapted as a response to patriarchal domination of women and nature. This theological model aims at establishing harmony between humanity and nature. The hierarchies of value within this paradigm defuse in this sacred ‘web of life.”[17]

Humanity exists as part of an ecosystem of symbiotic spiritually connected beings. The construction of this spirituality will be informed by the definition adopted from the seminar held by representatives of African religion and the Lutheran Church in South Africa  on the theme “Ancestors and Healing in African Spirituality: Challenges to the Churches in Africa.”[18] According to this seminar, spirituality was defined as “our connectedness to God, to our human roots, to the rest of nature, to one another and to ourselves.”[19] As a result, an African eco-spirituality of harmony that encompasses the sacredness of nature as central to human existence in body and spirit is realised. Through this sacredness of nature, humanity comprehends the marvels of the Creator who manifests through creation as a whole. This spirituality envisions humanity (both male and female) as inherently equal in being and integral to a holistic coexistence with nature. This is evident in Maathai’s integrated life of activism.

Finally, Maathai’s treasured symbol of an olive branch which is also the United Nations symbol for global peace, serves as a relevant nature icon to this spirituality. Through this symbol, nature represents peace and harmony to humanity and humanity in turn radiates this peace and harmony towards the preservation of nature and itself. This symbol unites humanity and nature towards a common cause, which is world peace. Citing Hay, Bianchi “reminds us that our own worth cannot be divorced from the natural world”[20] and as such Thomas Berry concludes, “the natural world is the larger sacred community to which we belong.”[21] Therefore, the worth of humanity should be measured by its ability to responsibly co-exist with nature and one another.

[1] Albert Billy Bangirana is a Theology Doctoral student (Gender and Religion programme) in the School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. <></>

[2] “Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) was born in Nyeri, Kenya. Having obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), she subsequently earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966). Pursuing doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, Maathai obtained a PhD (1971) from the University of Nairobi where she also taught veterinary anatomy. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In 2004, she was the recipient of the Noble Peace Prize. See:  [Accessed 31 October 2011].

[3] Wangari Muta Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir, (London: Heinemann, 2007), 176.

[4] Maathai, Unbowed, 176.

[5] Maathai, Unbowed, 176.

[6] Maathai, Unbowed, 191.

[7] Maathai, Unbowed, 191.

[8] Maathai, Unbowed, 192.

[9] Maathai, Unbowed, 203.

[10] Maathai, Unbowed, 203.

[11] Isabel Apawo Phiri, Life-giving and Affirming Spirituality: A Perspective from Africa, Paper presented at the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC), Accra Ghana, (2004), 2

[12] Phiri, “Life-giving and Affirming Spirituality,” 2.

[13] Taken from the description of the book by Wangari Muta Maathai, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual values for Healing Ourselves and the World, < X/> [Accessed 29 March 2013].

[14] Rakoczy, In Her Name, 308-309.

[15] Maathai, “Replenishing the Earth.”

[16] Rakoczy, In Her Name, 308-309.

[17] Clifford, Introducing Feminist Theology, 225.

[18] This seminar was held in Johannesburg from 27-30 September 2004.

[19] Lutheran World, “Ancestors and Healing in African Spirituality: Challenges to the Churches in Africa,” <> [Accessed 3 November 2011].

[20] Eugene C. Bianchi, “Psychospirituality: The Ecological Matrix,” in An Ecology of the Spirit: Religious Reflection and Environmental Consciousness, ed. Michael H. Barnes, (New York, NY: University Press of America, 1994), 127.

[21] JustEarth. “Spiritual Declaration on Climate Change.”