Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental activist who became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. Maathai spent most of her life contributing to sustainable development, democracy, and peace, and her accomplishments are internationally celebrated.
Born April 1st, 1940 in the Nyeri District of Kenya, Maathai grew up with a love for the land. She excelled in school and was awarded a scholarship to study in the U.S. in 1960. Maathai attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her master’s degree in biology, and later went on to study at the University of Munich, as well as at the University of Nairobi to obtain her Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy.
During her time at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became the first woman to fill the role of Chair in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. She also taught veterinary anatomy at the University and was the first woman to do so. Maathai used these positions of authority to campaign for equal benefits for the female staff of the school, and succeeded in most of these ventures.
In the 1970s, Maathai’s concern for the environment and its impact on the people of Kenya grew. Poor harvests and lack of rainwater led to people fighting for resources. Deforestation caused landslides and constant droughts. The food supply of many citizens was not secure, and firewood was becoming harder and harder to find. Maathai believed that by improving the state of the environment, the livelihood of the people could be restored.
In 1974, Maathai’s husband became a Member of Parliament, and with his support, she made an attempt to create a foundation for planting trees in Kenya. After advocating for the foundation at a 1976 UN conference, the Green Belt Movement (GBM) was founded in 1977.
GBM is an environmental organization that empowers communities, especially women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods. The foundation uses tree planting as a starting point to improve environmental management, community empowerment, and overall standards of living. GBM also educates about climate change and the effects of land grabbing, deforestation, and corruption.
“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,” said Maathai in a 1991 interview.
In the 1980s, Maathai served as chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), a position she held until she retired in 1987. In the 1990s, Maathai was involved in several protests for environmental and humanitarian issues, which were relatively successful. In 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and won 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.”
Wangari Maathai died September 25th, 2011 at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. Memorial services were held in three separate locations around the world.
Maathai was an inspiration to women around the world, and her efforts to improve the lives of women in Kenya will never be forgotten. She was truly ahead of her time and paved the way for women and sustainability.
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