It's Fall, y'all, and even though the leaves are turning orange and red in our part of the country, we are all about green this month for HerStory, as we delve into the life and activism of Wangari Maathai and her founding of the the Green Belt Movement.
Born in Nyeri in rural Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai truly did it all. She was a pioneer in practically everything she did, and seemed to be collecting firsts: she was the first woman ever in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree; the first woman ever to chair a department at the University of Nairobi, and the first woman ever to become an associate professor there. She was also the first African woman to win a Nobel Peach Prize for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." After earning degrees in America, she returned to Africa and became active in pro-democracy politics in her native Kenya. It was during her time chairing the National Council of Women of Kenya in the late 1970s that she began her work on what would become the Green Belt Movement, which was to become her most lasting legacy.
As she became more involved in advocacy groups such as the National Council of Women and the Kenya Red Cross Society (which she also directed) in Kenya, she realized that many of the problems she was seeing in her beloved home country were a direct result of environmental degradation. She was inspired to create a business that provided the seeds (see what we did there?) for the Green Belt Movement. Envirocare sought to connect ordinary Kenyans, particularly women, with the means to plant fledgeling tree nurseries, paying them to look after these nurseries. Even though Envirocare did not ultimately succeed, it was because of this work that Maathai was inspired and able to create the Green Belt Movement.
The Green Belt Movement was and is a grass-roots environmental organization with the goal of empowering people, mostly women, in rural communities to work at both environmental conservation and building their own food supplies toward more self-sustainability. This is achieved by community seed-planting and - stewardship, which in turn helps to build and protect soil and rainwater retention. Participants receive training and a small stipend for each seedling planted, and their community enjoys environment benefits from replenishing and rebuilding the soil. The main thrust of the movement is for communities to take control of their own destinies, by working together to address their specific needs.
Throughout all of this, Wangari Maathai had a personal life, too: she married, had three children, and ultimately divorced. Readers of this letter will be unsurprised to learn that her husband wished for a divorce because she was difficult to control, and even went so far, in the divorce proceedings, to accuse her of adultery and state that the worry over that caused high blood pressure. The (male) judge ruled in Wangari's husband's favor, which inspired her to wonder, in an interview, if he was corrupt or incompetent. The judge THEN charged her with contempt of court AND SHE WAS FOUND GUILTY AND SENTENCED TO SIX MONTHS IN JAIL!!! Whaaaaaaaaa…..? Fortunately, her lawyer was able to spring her after only three days, but seriously??? Once she was out of jail, her ex-husband demanded she stop his surname, to which the seemingly salty and, we're sure, fed up to her eyeballs Wangari responded by merely adding an extra "a" to the name, effectively changing it.
There is so much more to talk about with this amazing HerStory recipient (as there have been for every single one so far this year)… For instance, during her time at the University of Nairobi, she campaigned for equal rights for women, and even attempted to form a union in the hopes of gaining more bargaining power. Although the union was thwarted, the seeds of equal rights were planted, and much of what she was pushing for was eventually adopted by the university. And, because of her ethnic heritage and advocacy for a democratic Kenya, a lot of what she tried to accomplish politically was thwarted once Daniel arap Moi was elected president in the late 1970s.
In the 1980s, the government started attacking the Green Belt Movement, partly because it was such a democratic organization, and the government was swinging closer to authoritarianism (sound familiar?). As Maathai became more political and more outspoken against the ruling power, she was targeted by the government, called "a crazy woman" who ran a "bogus organization" run by a "bunch of divorcees." Resolved to fight for democracy and fairness, she was arrested in 1992, after her name was discovered on a governmental hit-list, and after barricading herself in her house for three days. She took part in a hunger strike (along with other mostly-women protestors) shortly after being released from jail, and, along with her fellow protestors, was attacked by the police so forcibly that hospitalization was necessary. She was again called "a mad woman" by the president of the country (can you imagine the president of a country personally attacking a private citizen? Oh, uh… nevermind). Through all of this, she continued to fight for democracy and environmental stewardship, and helped to get the National Rainbow Coalition on the ballots and winning in Kenya. She was elected to serve in the Kenyan parliament, and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003, fostering environmentalism in politics. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. We love her. Sadly, she passed away in 2011 at the age of 71 from complications arising from ovarian cancer.
There is so much we weren't able to cover, because Wangari Maathai had a multi-faceted life that won't easily fit into two pages. We encourage you to check out the Green Belt Movement (https:// www.greenbeltmovement.org), read her books, watch the documentary on her (called Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai), and if you can, donate. Our colorway is inspired by her work in the Green Belt Movement, and we're calling it Unbowed, after her memoir.
Our September HerStory recipient just had a birthday (September 10, 1955 is her birthdate), so let's all sing Happy Birthday, or Cumpleaños Feliz to her:
Better living through chemistry, right? Well, our August HerStory recipient, Seema Prakash, PhD believes in better living through botany.
As a child in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India, Seema Prakash became interested in science at an early age. She dreamed of becoming a pediatrician, after becoming enamored with Florence Nightingale, but even though as she grew, so did opportunities for women in India, the barriers to medical school were just too high. She attended an all-girls college in her hometown, earning her Masters in Botany before getting married and moving to England for a bit. During the early years of her children's lives, she concentrated on parenting, but it was while in England that she began her journey on the work that would eventually land her on our 2018 HerStory list. One website we found stated that, in the end, she DID become a pediatrician of sorts, although to plants instead of human babies.
In the 1990s, her family moved back to India and Seema earned her PhD. Inspired by Bob Geldof's activism in support of raising money for the famine in Africa, including the recording of "Do They Know It's Christmas" and the Live Aid concerts, she began working diligently on figuring out a less expensive way to clone plants. You see, before Dr. Prakash's groundbreaking work, plant cloning was prohibitively expensive for most, and thus was reserved for the big dogs of farming: the corporate farms who could afford the large price tag associated with it (the medium in which cloning traditionally occurs (agar) is very expensive). Dr. Prakash, seeing that having access to cloned plants, which have a higher yield, are more resistant to environmental factors that affect lesser plants, and are easier to propagate, would greatly help impoverished areas (such as great swaths of India), experimented with other media in which to culture plant tissue. After lots of trial and error, she discovered that sterilized glass beads and liquid nutrients, which are inexpensive and easy to come by, are just what the doctor (aka Dr. Prakash herself) ordered.
In the mid-1990s, Prakash founded a company to market this new way to clone, called In Vitro International Private Limited. (If you go to the website, know that it appears to not have been updated since the mid-1990s, and will show you just how far internet technology has come.) Her company is doing good works, pioneering different ways for small-scale farms to up their production and therefore better support themselves in an environmentally-friendly and sustainable way. The goal is a balanced growth, encouraging farmers to marry economics and ecology to support economic AND environmental sustainability for all. She has also created an education program for school-aged children, encouraging them to learn about plants and plant propagation through a "Plant Passport" program, with the goal of inspiring children to care about preservation and conservation.
We found ourselves very inspired by Dr. Prakash (although we also found that information about and images of her are hard to come by). Her efforts include creating a trust to ensure that rural farmers in developing countries have access to information and knowledge about economically-sustainable plant propagation free of charge; tireless advocation for women in agricultural and sustainable rural development work; and the introduction of technological advances to developing countries to introduce food self-sufficiency to parts of the world that have not yet achieved those goals, mostly because of economic and environmental disadvantages. We hope that this love letter, and the accompanyingly-inspirational colorway, Famine Fighter, that we created in honor of Dr. Seema Prakash teach you a thing or two about this amazing August HerStory recipient.
Speaking of Famine Fighter, we had so much fun creating this colorway! We did a massive google image search of saris, scrolling all around and mentally choosing colors to apply, and then we headed into the dye room and started playing. We have so enjoyed the creation of each of our HerStory colorways so far this year, but this one was particularly fun. Super-saturated silky blue and green and yellow, all in a skein of yarn? YES PLEASE!
Remember that we love it when you share your projects with us! On Instagram, tag @knittedwit, and use hashtags #knittedwit and #herstory2018kal. On Facebook, make sure to join our Knitted Wit Knitalongs Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/knittedwitkal), to be inspired by what your coHerStory knitters have made, and inspire all of us with your creations.