“The future of the planet concerns all of us, and we should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”
Social activist and environmental crusader, Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, in 1940 and grew up in a small village. Her family decided to send her to school at the age of 8, together with her brothers, a very unusual thing for girls at the time. She very quickly proved to be an excellent student and was granted admission to the only Catholic High school for girls in Kenya, the Loreto High School.
In 1960, she became one of some 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States and Maathai attended College in Kansas where she then earned a bachelor´s degree in biology. She went on to study biology for her Master´s at the University of Pittsburgh. After returning to Kenya and working as a research assistant in the School of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Nairobi, she completed her Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy in 1971, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to get a doctorate degree. She became the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976, again becoming the first woman to attain those positions in the region.
During her time there, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university. Involved in several civic organisations, such as the Kenya Red Cross Society, the Kenya Association of University Women, and the Environment Liaison Center, she was also very active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organisation consisting of many women´s organisations in the country (1976-1987). Through her work at these different associations, it became evident to her that the root of most of Kenya´s problems was environmental degradation.
During her time at NCWK, she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting, an idea which developed into a broad-based grassroots organisation, the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977. The Green Belt Movement focuses on reducing poverty and conservation of the environment through tree-planting while seeking to empower communities, particularly women, and improve their livelihoods.
She was also elected member of Parliament and appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya´s ninth parliament between 2003-2007. During that time, in 2004, she also became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.
Wangari Maathai passed away at the age of 71 in 2011 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She will always be remembered as a fearless defender of the rights of people, and particularly women, to their livelihood, never afraid of speaking the truth to the most powerful world leaders in order to fight for environmental protection and conservation.
By Teresa Iglesias, WAVE Intern
Kabiru, Joseph. “Farewell Wangari Maathai, You Were a Global Inspiration – and My Heroine | Joseph Kabiru.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Sept. 2011, www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/sep/26/farewell-wangari-maathai-my-heroine.
Vidal, John. “Wangari Maathai, the Woman I Knew | John Vidal.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 26 Sept. 2011, www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/sep/26/wangari-maathai-africa-nobel-laureate.
“Wangari Maathai Biography.” The Biography.com Website, A&E Networks Television, 27 Feb. 2018, www.biography.com/people/wangari-maathai-13704918.
“Who We Are.” The Green Belt Movement, www.greenbeltmovement.org/who-we-are.