April 1, 1940 – September 25, 2011
Notable: Environmental & Political Activist
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in a small rural village in Kenya where she grew up surrounded by nature. Her father earned a living as a tenant farmer, she gathered water from springs, and her grandmother told her about a local tree that was to be preserved and protected as it was sacred. During Maathai’s childhood, Kenya was still under British rule and girls typically didn’t attend school. Yet, Maathai’s family broke with tradition and enrolled her in school at the age of eight-years-old. Maathai proved herself to be a great student and went on to study at Loreto Girls’ High School before winning a scholarship to attend college in America.
Arriving in Atchinson, Kansas in 1960, Maathai attended Mount St. Scholastica College from which she would earn an undergraduate degree in biology. She then obtained a master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. The six or so years that Maathai spent studying in America coincided with the Civil Rights Movement as well as protests of the Vietnam War which greatly influenced her ideologies.
Maathai continued her education at the University of Nairobi where she studied veterinary anatomy. Upon completion of the program, Maathai became the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate. She made history again in the region as a member of the school’s faculty when she became the first female to chair a university department.
In 1976, Maathai joined the National Council of Women in Kenya. It was while working with this group that she began brainstorming solutions to address Kenya’s environmental problems. The country was in the midst of development but much of it was being completed irresponsibly. Large swaths of land were being cleared for farms and buildings resulting in deforestation. Emphasis was placed on trees and crops which grew rapidly but depleted the soil and required copious amounts of water draining water ecosystems and causing desertification.
Maathai found that as with Kenya’s environment, its women were also facing financial hardships as the landscape shifted. Seeing a connection between the plight of women and the environment, Maathai settled upon the idea of having local women plant trees. This solution would enable women to simultaneously supplement their income while revitalizing the environment.
The tree-planting program was formally organized into the Green Belt Movement which would lead to the planting of an estimated 30 million trees. Implementation of its tree-planting programs provided multiple resources for communities by way of wood for fuel, fruits for nutrition, soil rejuvenation, and replenishment of water ecosystems. In 1986, the Green Belt Movement expanded with the creation of the Pan African Green Belt Network which aimed to disseminate its environmental conservation and revitalization practices through the education of world leaders. The promotion of the organization’s programs led to the establishment of similar initiatives in other African countries.
The eventual overall success of her environmental programs belies the fact that it was not an easy road to get them started. Maathai first began by establishing a tree nursery on the outskirts of Nairobi which she later relocated to her backyard. Attendees at agricultural shows expressed their interest but didn’t follow-up on procuring seedlings. Government foresting officials underestimated rural women’s ability to plant and nourish seedlings. Despite this lack of faith, Maathai believed in the women and took the time to build on the knowledge they already had while also teaching them new skills.
Maathai ran afoul of the Kenyan government on more than one occasion due to her speaking out against the dictator Daniel arap Moi and protesting the carving up of forest land. The Green Belt Movement’s protest against the building of a skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park garnered international media attention which scuttled the project. The site of the protest would come to be known as “Freedom Corner” and was the location at which Maathai would be beaten and injured a year later during a protest for the release of political prisoners. Maathai came to see many of Kenya’s problems as emanating from misgovernance and her outspokenness would lead to physical attacks, imprisonment, and other forms of harassment.
Yet, Maathai persevered and her environmental successes coupled with her advocacy for democracy, human rights, HIV/AIDS education, and women’s rights led to her speaking before the United Nations General Assembly on several occasions. Following several unsuccessful campaigns, Maathai received 98% of the vote in a parliamentary election and joined Kenya’s National Assembly. A year later Maathai became the Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife. In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Prize becoming the first African woman to receive the award. Two years later Maathai published the story of her life and experiences under the title Unbowed.
Unfortunately, she then spent the next five years of her life battling ovarian cancer before passing away at the age of 71. Wangari Maathai had received several awards during her lifetime and in death, her life of activism and conservation was celebrated with memorial services in Kenya and around the world. She was survived by her three children, one of whom, Wanjira Mathai, had become an environmental activist in her own right.
- “Biography.” n.d. The Green Belt Movement. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2020. “Wangari Maathai.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. March 28, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wangari-Maathai.
- MacDonald, Mia. 2005. “The Green Belt Movement, and the Story of Wangari Maathai.” Yes! Magazine. March 26, 2005. https://www.yesmagazine.org/issue/media/2005/03/26/the-green-belt-movement-the-story-of-wangari-maathai/.
- “Wangari Maathai – Biographical.” n.d. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Media AB 2020. Accessed August 10, 2020. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2004/maathai/biographical/.
- “Wangari Maathai.” 2020. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. July 7, 2020. https://www.biography.com/activist/wangari-maathai.
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