Wangari Muta Maathai was born on the 1st of April 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya (Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, n.d.). Studying in the United States, she earned her biology degree from Mount St. Scholastica College, Kansas, in 1964 and a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 (Lewis, 2019). Five years later at the University of Nairobi in Kenya, she became the first woman in either East or Central Africa to receive a PhD (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). In 1976, she became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and one year later, an associate professor, becoming the first woman to attain those positions in the region (The Green Belt Movement, 2011). Even so, this was just the beginning of the many firsts that she achieved.
When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of peace and seeds of hope (Maathai, 2006)
It cannot be denied that Professor Maathai is an extraordinary person that drew global attention to problems affecting all of us. Not only did she effectively combine science, social commitment and politics with the aim of protecting the environment, but she also provided a large number of communities with the knowledge and tools that enabled the people to lead better, more sustainable lives.
Wallet, P. (2016, March 10). Wangari Maathai. Carolina Women's Center. Retrieved from https://womenscenter.unc.edu/2016/03/inspiration-for-womens-history-month-wangari-maathai/photo-wangari_maathai-c-patrick-wallet/
Besides being an accomplished scholar, Maathai believed in the importance of empowering communities, especially women and girls. One of her biggest accomplishments was founding Green Belt Movement in 1977, which focused on addressing the problem of global deforestation. While planting trees served as the fundament of the organisation’s work, lots of resources and time was dedicated to improving the quality of life particularly among women and addressing inequities. It is estimated the organisation has since then planted over 51 million trees on farms, in school and church compounds across Kenya, promoting environmental conservation and building climate resilience (Goldman Environmental Prize, 2018).
Being aware of the connection between environmental degradation and poverty and conflict, Professor Maathai was also an advocate for human rights and AIDS prevention (Ighobor, 2012). She frequently addressed such issues at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly, being a strong supporter of sustainable development that embraces environmental conservation, democracy and respect for human rights (Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, n.d.).
It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in (Maathai, n.d.)
Professor Maathai’s activism journey was not an easy one. Her open criticism was perceived by some people, including the government, as unnecessary to Kenyan citizens, yet it did not stop her from pursuing her passion and making a long-lasting impact not only on the country but also on the world (Carolina Women’s Center, 2016). In the 1980s, she was imprisoned several times for criticizing Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi and for demanding multi-party elections in Kenya, which President was not interested in (Faal, 2009). She was responsible for organising several protests against President, who often referred to her as a ‘mad woman’ in an angry manner (Ighobor, 2012). Even in her personal life, she did not always find the support she needed. In 1979, after a two-year-long separation, her husband, Mwangi Maathai, divorced her for being ‘too strong-minded’, which was not a trait considered attractive in a woman (Ighobor, 2012).
Even though Professor Maathai fought many battles throughout her life, she never gave up. In addition to her work for Green Belt Movement, she contributed to the development of other organisations and institutions as well, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) from 1976 to 1987, where she also was its chairperson from 1981 to 1987. In 1985, she co-founded Grassroots Organisations Operating Together in Sisterhood (GROOTS) International, whose mission is to ‘facilitate grassroots women effective engagement in development through movement building, leadership and advocacy’ (International Land Coalition, n.d.). Being also a member of a variety of local and international boards, including Millennium Development Goals (MDG) Advocacy Group, the United Nations Commission on Global Governance and the United Nations Environmental Program in Kenya, she ‘has invested her life in the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development’ (Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, n.d.).
Green Belt Movement (n.d.). The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Retrieved from https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/node/478
In 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to Kenya’s National Assembly with 98 per cent of the vote and subsequently appointed as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in the ninth parliament of Kenya (The Nobel Prize, 2011). In 2004, she was awarded Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African woman and the ninth African to be honoured with this title. In her Nobel speech, she emphasised that ‘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’ (Wangari Maathai, 2014), which was the idea she has always shown through her actions.
On the 28th of March in 2005, Professor Wangari Maathai was elected the first President of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOC), which aims to ‘contribute, through advice, to the effective translation of the objectives, principles and policies of the African Union into concrete programmes, as well as the evaluation of these programmes’ (AU ECOSOC, n.d.). The same year, she was recognized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people and by Forbes Magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world (Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, n.d.). It is also worth mentioning that Professor Maathai is the author of four books – ‘The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience’, ‘The Challenge for Africa’, ‘Unbowed’ and ‘Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World’ (Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, n.d.).
Stone, W. (n.d.). Wangari Maathai. Corbis via Getty Images. Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/activist/wangari-maathai
Professor Maathai died at the age of 71 years old in 2011 after her battle with ovarian cancer (Lewis, 2019). Nevertheless, she has left a mark on the world as she will be forever recognised for her tireless struggle for environmental conservation and human rights (Schueman, 2023). Professor Maathai is a hero that thought globally but acted locally, being perceived as a leader that not only knows and shows the way but goes the way. As she once said in her speech at Goldman Awards in San Francisco in 2006, ‘Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it, and make it survive, you haven't done a thing. You're just talking.’
Professor Maathai had a dream – and she dedicated her life to making it true. We often forget that we have an enormous impact on the future. We accept the present because we are too afraid to challenge the status quo. Such unique individuals as Professor Maathai show us that with enough determination and hard work, our voices can be heard. That bringing about change is possible. And that we can together build a better tomorrow.
AU ECOSOC. (n.d.). Home. African Union ECOSOCC. https://ecosocc.au.int/
Carolina Women’s Center. (2016, March 10). Inspiration for Women’s History Month: Wangari Maathai. Carolina Women’s Center. https://womenscenter.unc.edu/2016/03/inspiration-for-womens-history-month-wangari-maathai/
Faal, C. (2009, March 29). Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011). BlackPast. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/maathai-wangari-muta-1940/
Goldman Environmental Prize. (2018, March 21). The Green Belt Movement: 40 Years of Impact. https://www.goldmanprize.org/blog/green-belt-movement-wangari-maathai/
Ighobor, K. (2012, January 17). Wangari Maathai, the woman of trees, dies. Africa Renewal. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/web-features/wangari-maathai-woman-trees-dies
International Land Coalition. (n.d.). Grassroots Organisations Operating Together in Sisterhood. International Land Coalition. https://www.landcoalition.org/en/explore/our-network/grassroots-organisations-operating-together-in-sisterhood/
Lewis, J. J. (2019, January 31). Wangari Maathai: Environmentalist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner. ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/wangari-maathai-biography-3530667
Maathai, W. (2006). The Green Belt Movement: sharing the approach and the experience. Lantern Books.
Schueman, L. J. (2023, March 8). Conservation Hero: Wangari Maathai. One Earth. https://www.oneearth.org/conservation-hero-wangari-maathai/
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2019). Wangari Maathai | Biography, Nobel Peace Prize, & Facts. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wangari-Maathai
The Green Belt Movement. (2011). Wangari Maathai | The Green Belt Movement. The Green Belt Movement. https://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai
The Nobel Prize. (2011). The Nobel Peace Prize 2004. The Nobel Prize. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2004/maathai/biographical/
Wangari Maathai. (2014, April 2). Biography. https://www.biography.com/activist/wangari-maathai
Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. (n.d.). About Prof. Wangari Maathai | Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. https://wmi.uonbi.ac.ke/basic-page/about-prof-wangari-maathai