The first ever African woman from Kenya to win the Nobel Prize in 2004 was Wangari Maathai. The recognition and Nobel Prize was conferred to her “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Her life was dedicated to the African environment, and to the political scene in Kenya. Wangari Maathai was Kenya’s elected Member of Parliament who served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural resources, in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005. She was also the Honorary Councillor of the World Future Council. But her most notaable work was the Green Belt Movement that she founded in 1977. To date, the foundation has successfully planted over 51 million trees and helped women to work their way out of poverty. Wangari Maathai is a renowned Kenyan environmental, social, and political activist.

Academically inclined

Born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Wangari grew up in Kenya which was a British colony then. Her father worked as a tenant farmer and her mother was a housewife. She began schooling, at the age of eight, joining her brothers at Ihithe Primary School. Seeing her interest in studies, which was uncommon in girls at that time, an 11-year-old Maathai was sent off to the St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school run by the Mathari Catholic Mission of Nyeri From there she went on to study at the Loreto Girls’ High School.

In 1960, Maathai was one of 300 students selected by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation to go to college in the United States. She attended the Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, majoring in Biology in 1964.  In 1966, she completed a Masters in Biology from the University of Pittsburg.

Returning to Kenya, Maathai continued her academic aspirations. She studied veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. In 1971, she became Kenya’s first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi.  Later in 1976, Maathai joined the university’s faculty and became the first woman to chair a university department in the region.

Besides joining the University’s faculty, around the same time she started to get more involved in other civic organizations. She became a member of the Kenya Association of University Women. Then in 1973, she became the Director of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society. Then, in 1974, when the Environment Liaison Centre was founded, Maathai was invited to be a member of the board, which she accepted and in fact in the later years headed its board chair.

Image credits: The Goldman Environmental Prize

Wangari Maathai’s Green Belt Movement of Kenya

Infrastructure and development are good but sometimes it comes at a high cost. Kenya’s development was depleting its natural forests. Having seen this, Maathai in 1977, launched the Green Belt Movement. The organization’s aim was to further and support economic development through environmental preservation and eco-tourism.

As the movement gathered momentum, it helped plant millions of trees and provide employment to over 30,000 women. GBM also trained women in skills and industries such as forestry and beekeeping, to earn an income whilst preserving their land. “Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted,” Maathai explained to People magazine. “So we decided to solve both problems together.”

Maathai became the most vocal activist of Kenya’s environment even challenging and criticizing the development plans of dictator Daniel arap Moi.

By the late 80s, the Kenyan government came down against the activist Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement for propagating democratic rights, constitutional reforms, freedom of expression and registering voters for the election.

In October 1989, when Maathai and her organization staged a protest in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to prevent the construction of a complex for a 60-storey skyscraper for Kenya Times Media Trust along with a trading center, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for 2,000 cars, her campaign drew international attention. She wrote letters to foreign organizations like UNESCO and UNEP.

The government came down heavily on Maathai. She was called “a crazy woman” and her organization a bogus organization with “a bunch of divorcees”. She was even forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement had to be relocated to her home.

In January 1990, after all her protests and media coverage the foreign investors dropped the Uhuru Park project. Since then place in the park where Maathai and the Green Belt Movement demonstrated became known as “Freedom Corner.”

Image credits: Green Belt Movement

The Movement Continues

Maathai now became an internationally acclaimed activist and continued to openly oppose  Moi’s political party till it lost control in 2002. Her political, ecological and environmental vision helped her win a seat in Kenya’s parliament after winning 98% of the vote from Tetu constituency. She was appointed as assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife.

In 2004, she received the remarkable Nobel Peace Prize. In the words of the Nobel Committee: “She thinks globally and acts locally.” In her Nobel speech, Maathai said choosing her “challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: There can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.”

In 2009, Wangari Maathai was named UN Messenger of Peace.

Unbowed she goes

In the 2006 memoir, “Unbowed” Maathai shared her spirited life story and purpose with the world. On September 25, 2011, at the age of 71, Maathai lost her battle to ovarian cancer. Maathai is survived by her three children: Waweru, Wanjira and Muta.

Posthumous recognition

  • 2012, Wangar? Gardens a 2.7 acre community garden project for local residents with over 55 garden allotments opened in. Washington, DC.
  • 2013, the University of Pittsburgh’s introduced the Wangar? Maathai Trees and Garden in its Cathedral of Learning.
  • 2014, a statue of Wangari Maathai installed at her alma mater’s Atchison, Kansas campus.
  • 2016, Forest Road in Nairobi renamed Wangar? Maathai Road.
  • 2019, a mural of Maathai added to the front entryway of Westerman Hall of Science and Engineering.

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