Our woman hero of October is Wangarĩ Maathai! She was a renowned Kenyan social, environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.
Maathai was born in 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya. At the age of 11, Maathai moved to St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri. Maathai studied at St. Cecilia’s for four years. During this time, she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism. As the end of East African colonialism approached, Kenyan politicians, such as Tom Mboya, were proposing ways to make education in Western nations available to promising students. John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of some 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States in September 1960.
After receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1964, Maathai studied at the University of Pittsburgh for a master’s degree in biology. Her graduate studies there were funded by the Africa-America Institute, and during her time in Pittsburgh, she first experienced environmental restoration, when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution. In the spring of 1969, she returned to Nairobi to continue studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer.
Maathai continued to teach at Nairobi, becoming a senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to any of these positions. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university. In addition to her work at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became involved in a number of civic organizations in the early 1970s. Through her work at these various volunteer associations, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation.
In 1974, Maathai’s husband, Mwangi Mathai, campaigned for a seat in Parliament and won. During his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. These promises led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed and led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved the planting of trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery, collocated with a government tree nursery in Karura Forest. Envirocare ran into multiple problems, primarily dealing with funding, and ultimately led to the failure of the project. However, through conversations concerning Envirocare and her work at the Environment Liaison Centre, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) made it possible to send Maathai to the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I, in June 1976
In 1977, Maathai spoke to the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) concerning her attendance at Habitat I. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported. On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji Park on the outskirts of the city, where they planted seven trees in honour of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt”, which was first known as the “Save the Land Harambee” and then became the Green Belt Movement.
In January 2003, Maathai was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and served in that capacity until November 2005. She founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 to allow candidates to run on a platform of conservation as embodied by the Green Belt Movement. It is a member of the Federation of Green Parties of Africa and the Global Greens. Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.
Wangarĩ Maathai died on 25 September 2011 of complications arising from ovarian cancer while receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital. In 2012, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF), an international consortium of 14 organizations, secretariats and institutions working on international forest issues, launched the inaugural Wangarĩ Maathai Forest Champion Award. Also in 2012, Wangarĩ Gardens opened in Washington, DC. This community garden honours the legacy of Wangarĩ Maathai and her mission for community engagement and environmental protection.
Wangarĩ Maathai inspires us that there are various ways to empower the people around us. One of them is through environmental preservation. Not only it conserve the environment, it can also encourage community development and capacity building.
Need other kinds of inspiration? Just check Adorageek’s other posts!