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Book Illustrations Project: Wangari Maathai - Unbowed

I've recently started a new project. Illustrating some of the books that have had an impact on me, and the connections and threads I end up following. Using the project as a way to improve my skills, particularly drawing people and faces.

I've been reading a lot of books about trees recently. Initially inspired by reading 'Unbowed' by Wangari Maathai. Wangari's story stayed with me well after reading her book.

Wangari Maathai was 60 yrs old when she wrote her memoir 'Unbowed', a record of an extraordinary woman who worked tirelessly to help the lives of others. Born in 'British' Kenya in 1940, in the highlands and foothills of Mount Kenya. She grew up in a green and fertile land.

Wangari was given the opportunity to go to primary school after her brother asked her mother 'Why doesn't Wangari go to school?. Wangari said that the decision her mother made to send her to school 'changed my life'.

She thrived in education and went on to take up a scholarship in the U.S. as a result of Kenya's independence in 1960. She returned to Kenya in 1966, full of hope and opportunity. She wrote in her book however 'What I did not know then was that tribalism and other forms of corruption were going to become some of the most divisive factors in our society'

She took a job working for the University College of Nairobi working in the Veterinary Medicine department after being denied a job in Zoology (due to sexism). It wasn't easy being an educated woman in a mans world, and she came across lots of oppression and double standards. But she fought for equality, along with her female colleagues.

She carried on her education and completed her P.H.D. in 1971, the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive one.

Returning to Kenya after being in the U.S. Wangari had noticed a change in the landscape from her childhood. What was once a fertile, green land with running streams, had now become poor and depleted. ' I saw rivers silted with topsoil, much of which was coming from the forest where plantations of commercial trees had replaced indigenous forest. I noticed that much of the land that had been covered by trees, bushes and grasses when I was growing up had been replaced by tea and coffee'.

Wangari visited the village where she had grown up. She was reminded of collecting firewood as a child, her mother had told her to leave the 'Fig Tree', 'Don't pick any dry wood out of the fig tree, or even around it....Because that is God's tree......We don't use it. We don't cut it. We don't burn it'. Near the fig tree was a stream, with fresh clean water, the source bubbling up from the ground. Allowing plants that needed lots of water to be planted along it's banks for food, and little pools full of tadpoles where Wanagri played.

On her return the fig tree had gone, removed by the new land owners, the land was bare, and the stream had dried up. It was then that she made the connection between the fig tree and the water. ' I mourned the loss of that tree. I profoundly appreciated the wisdom of my people, and how generations of women had passed on to their daughters the cultural tradition of leaving the fig trees in place......people in that region had been spared landslides, as the strong roots of the fig trees held the soil together in the steep mountains. They also had abundant, clean water'

By 1975 the 'Green Belt Movement' began to take seed.

Wangari saw the connection between empowering women and planting trees to provide and protect the environment.

Taken from the Green Belt Movement Website, Wangari '......saw that behind the everyday hardships of the poor—environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment, work together for mutual benefit, and to do both selflessly and honestly'

Women grew nurseries of indigenous tree seedlings, for every seedling that was planted they received a small amount of money. This was pivotal in providing the women with an income and encouraging the progression of the movement. These women then went on to teach other women how to look after tree nurseries. The trees were then planted in 'belts', providing shade, windbreaks, habitat, to bind the soil to help stop erosion, and eventually a supply of firewood.

'Participants began to understand that for years they had been placing their trust in leaders who had betrayed them and that they were sabotaging their lives by not working for the common good and failing to use their natural resources wisely.'

Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and The Green Belt Movement is still 'growing' strong today, having planted billions of trees. It's testament to empowering individuals with the ability to make a change. We've seen 'rewilding' in the UK grow recently as a way to fight Climate Change and the extinction of animals. It's important we look back and recognise women like Wangari who have been instrumental in environmentalism since the 50's and 60's, this isn't a new 'cause', their voices weren't always heard or given power. Wangari saw a problem and created a working solution that has changed lives. She didn't sit in her million pound office talking about it, she went to where the problem was and got her hands dirty.

'Be A Hummingbird!' don't wait around for the powers that be to make a change.

' We all share one planet and are one humanity; there is no escaping this reality' - Wangari Maathai.

'I don't want to protect the environment, I want to create a word where the environment doesn't need protecting' - Wangari Maathai

Wangari faced many more challenges in her life, she was an incredible lady. You can read her book ' Unbowed' to read about her extraordinary resilience and life force.

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