Renowned women’s and environmental activist Cécile Ndjebet sits down for an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA as she is announced the winner of the prestigious Wangari Maathai Forest Champions award for 2022.
“Determined, considerate and principled,” is how renowned activist, conservationist and feminist Cécile Ndjebet was described, honored this week as the winner of the 2022 Wangari Maathai Award in Seoul, South Korea.
Decked in beautiful color, Ndjebet accepted the award with emotion and characteristic humility. The African activist sat down for an interview with FORBES AFRICA to discuss her history and her hopes for the future.
Growing up in rural Cameroon, Ndjebet’s upbringing was typical of life at the time, involving farming, with much of the hardship and labor being performed by women.
“I grew up with my mother and elder sister – they were rural women. I could see the challenges that they were facing to raise themselves up, to raise us up. The other women in the village were sharing the same challenges,” says Ndjebet. “We were quite a poor family. That’s how I started.”
With over half of Cameroon’s population involved in agriculture, much of which was subsistence-based (CIA, 2020) Ndjebet had a clear, early picture of the poverty in her surroundings, as well as the impact that farming for survival was having on the local environment. Commercial logging interests by primarily foreign-owned companies also contribute heavily to deforestation and environmental destruction.
With limited opportunities available and a clear image of challenges to those around her, Ndjebet decided to take the initiative to solve problems. “I only had two things I could do; either go into rural development or being a medical doctor… I knew that I had to pay great importance and attention to rural women,” says Ndjebet.
It is these efforts that led to her being nominated and winning the renowned Wangari Maathai Forest Champions award, presented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), announced this week. The award recognizes the extraordinary efforts of an individual to improve and sustain forests, as well as those who depend on them, and is a highly recognized award for climate change activists.
The award is named for Nobel Prize winning environmental activist Wangari Maathai of Kenya, who was critical in engaging with environmental concerns of rural Kenyan women, founding the Green Belt Movement and helping stimulate dozens of social and environmental initiatives.
Ndjebet’s honoring is appropriate, coming full circle from meeting Wangari Maathai and being inspired to do more.
A tearful Ndjebet accepted the award on stage during an award ceremony in South Korea’s capital of Seoul Thursday afternoon. “This is a hard moment for me, but a beautiful moment for me, and for rural women,” and acknowledging the direct inspiration that Maathai had on her in a brief meeting which served to inspire Ndjebet; “she explained to me her love for nature, for forests… the dangers of climate change and human responsibility.”
“It is sad for me that Wangari Maathai is unable to witness this moment since she passed away so early,” said Ndjebet in closing. She will continue to fight for women’s rights and environmental conservation by using the $20,000 in prize money to help found a women’s college in Cameroon. “… but this recognition gives me the courage to continue this work.”