Born on April 1, 1940 Wangari Maathai grew up in Nyeri County, located in the central highlands of Kenya. She had a bucolic childhood spent in the rural Kenyan countryside and was sent to St. Cecilia Intermediary, a mission school, for her primary education.
Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Wangari’s university education began in 1964 in the United States, where she attended Mount St. Scholastica College, majoring in Biology. She obtained her bachelor of science in biology in 1964 and continued to pursue education. Attending the University of Pittsburgh, she graduated with a masters in biological sciences.
Wangari Maathai went on to become the first women in East Africa to earn a doctorate, gaining a PhD from the University of Nairobi in 1971. After graduation she taught at the University of Nairobi, eventually becoming a chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy.
Nurturing a Movement
The Green Belt Movement began as a project of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), of which she was a member. Women had been coming to the NCWK complaining of deteriorating environmental conditions in their rural regions.
With streams drying up, and poor harvests, women had to walk further and further afield in search of firewood.
Prof. Wangari Maathai saw the solution clearly. Through the Green Belt Movement, she mobilized thousands of women and men to plant tens of millions of trees throughout Kenya. Prof. Wangari Maathai’s approach was practical, holistic, and deeply ecological: the tree roots bound the soil, halting erosion and retained groundwater following rains. This in turn replenished streams, and the trees provide food, fodder, and fuel — maintaining the livelihoods of communities.
Within a few years, Prof. Wangari Maathai realized that the illegal and corrupt privatization of public land necessitated a more systematic and comprehensive approach to conservation.
These activities brought Prof. Wangari Maathai into direct conflict with the Kenyan government. She was harassed, threatened, beaten, and jailed. Nevertheless, Prof. Wangari Maathai and GBM persevered, earning national and global recognition for her transformative work. Working tirelessly as a member of parliament and an assistant minister for the environment, she fought for women’s rights, democratic space, multipartyism, against corruption, land grabbing, and misogyny.
From 2004 to her untimely death in 2011, Prof Wangari Maathai continued travelling the world campaigning for change. She urged action be taken on climate change, environmental justice, the protection of forests, good governance, participatory democracy, and women’s rights within Kenya. She touched the hearts of rural women, heads of state, people of every faith, in her community and across continents alike. Wangari Maathai’s legacy is exemplary of how one person can be a force for change.
The legacy of Wangari Maathai, however, remains incomplete. Wangari did so much more than create environmental and educational systems to empower women through grassroots means. She touched countless lives— in Kenya, across Africa, and around the world. She embodied values and characteristics that they wanted in themselves: to aspire to an idea bigger than individual needs and to make a difference regardless of their situation or resources.