Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) was a Kenyan environmental activist. She founded the Green Belt Movement in the 1970s seeking to promote environmental conservation in Kenya and Africa. She became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
After campaigning for the restoration of democracy in Kenya during the 1990s, she served as a member of Parliament and Assistant Minister for the environment and natural resources between 2003 and 2005.
Early Life Wangari Maathai
Maathai was born 1 April 1940 in the Nyeri District in the central highlands of Kenya. She is a member of the Kikuyu – the most populous tribe in Kenya. When she was young, her family moved to the Rift Valley, where her father worked on a white-owned farm. Her early experiences of living close to the land remained a strong motivation for promoting conservation of the natural landscape.
At the age of 11, she was sent to a Catholic boarding school where she became a Catholic. During her childhood, the Mau Mau uprising sought to achieve Kenyan independence from the British; however, at the boarding school, she was protected from the violence.
In 1960, she gained a scholarship to study in the US. She gained a master’s degree in biology from the University of Pittsburgh. She later studied for a doctorate at the University of Munich. In 1969, she returned to Nairobi where she became the first East African woman to receive a PhD – which she gained it in veterinary anatomy.
Maathai’s academic career was successful, and she became the first woman to be appointed to various positions of seniority at Nairobi university. Using her position of influence, she sought to campaign for equal benefits for the female staff. Many of these campaigns were successful.
In the mid 1970s, Maathai became concerned about the impact of environmental degradation on the economic and social fortunes of Kenya. Deforestation was causing landslips and more frequent draughts. Poor harvests and lack of rainwater, exacerbated inter tribal conflict as people were forced to fight for meagre resources. She felt protecting the environment would prevent many of these economic and social problems.
In 1974, her husband became an MP, and Maathai sought to support his promises to find work for the rising number of unemployed. It was at this time, Maathai made her first attempt to create a foundation for planting trees. A lack of money limited its initial success, but her efforts were rewarded with gaining a trip to the 1976 UN conference on human settlements. Here Maathai advocated more tree planting to improve environmental conditions.
After the conference Maathai led a movement to plant trees throughout Kenya. This became known as the Green Belt movement and has become a prominent environmental organisation supporting conservation and tree planting across Africa. The Green Belt movement was supported by the Norwegian Forestry Society and Maathai later gained a job as coordinator.
In the early 1980s, Maathai was elected chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). She held this position until she retired in 1987. The NCWK was a collection of women groups. Under Maathai, it became increasingly focused on environmental issues. Maathai later talked about her motivation for caring about environment and humanitarian issues.
“I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me.
All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet — at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.” Wangari Maathai:” You Strike The Woman …” by Priscilla Sears; published in the quarterly In Context #28 (Spring 1991)
In the early 1990s and 1992 in particular, Maathai was also the focus of pro-democracy protests. Her group was targeted by the government who disliked her opposition to their rule. On one occasion, Maathai with other protesters, went on hunger strike to protest against building on a public park. The protesters were violently removed. Maathai spoke about the difficulties of political life in Kenya during the 1990s.
“It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don’t know who to trust. You worry that you, your family, or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassinations or targeted “accidents”, is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.”
Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, p. 206.
She later served a vice president for the Movement for Free and Fair Elections. The pro-democracy protests of the 1990s were relatively successful and in 2002, Maathai stood as a candidate for the National Rainbow Coalition. The incumbent government were defeated, and in January 2003 she was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and natural resources.
Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 2004. The Nobel statement said:
“Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.”
—The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Talking in 2004, she said that here activities were seeking to promote peace through the avoidance of potential conflict.
“I think what the Nobel committee is doing is going beyond war and looking at what humanity can do to prevent war. Sustainable management of our natural resources will promote peace.” (Time, 10 October 2004)
Maathai was one of the founders of the Nobel Women’s initiative along with others, such as Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Betty Williams.
Maathai died in 2011 from complications arising from Ovarian cancer. She had three children (Bangari, Sangari, and Mangari) She separated from her husband, Mwangi Maathai in 1977 and divorced in 1979.
Unbowed: Wangari Maathai