Wangari Maathai was an inspiring environmental leader, yet she endured a lifetime of ridicule, violence, imprisonment and other indignities. Her success in developing Africa's Green Belt Movement, however, earned her international fame and a Nobel Prize. Who was this fascinating woman, and how did she succeed against overwhelming odds?
Wangari Maathai's Early Life
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in the small Kenyan village of Ihithe on April 1, 1940 -- at the time, Kenya was still a British colony. Her Kikuyu family placed an emphasis on education, and at the age of 11, Maathai entered a Catholic high school. She excelled as a student and became fluent in English.
Hard work and good luck gave Maathai a rare opportunity: In 1960, she was awarded a scholarship to study abroad, at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. After completing her studies there, she went on to receive a master's degree in biology in 1966 from the University of Pittsburgh. It was there that Maathai was introduced to the nascent environmental movement that was starting to influence American life and politics.
Maathai Returns to Kenya
In 1966, Maathai returned to Kenya to begin a job as a research assistant at the University of Nairobi, only to discover upon her arrival that the job had been given to someone else. Undaunted, Maathai went to Germany to continue her studies at the University of Giessen; she completed her doctoral research in biology at the University of Nairobi, and in 1971 became the first woman from East Africa to be awarded a Ph.D.
Now married with two children, Maathai began working as a professor while also becoming involved in organizations like the Kenya Red Cross Society and the United Nations Environment Program. Her husband was also politically active and worked to end unemployment in Kenya. Maathai realized she could combine her environmental activism and her husband's unemployment efforts in a way that would eventually lead to international acclaim.
The Green Belt Movement
In 1977, Maathai and several other people planted seven trees in honor of historical Kenyan community leaders. From these humble beginnings, the Green Belt Movement was born in Africa. As the movement grew, Maathai was able to pay women a small stipend for finding seeds and seedlings, and to pay them for planting these in Green Belt areas throughout Africa. The program, whose aim was to preserve the environment while providing firewood as well as employment, received funding from the United Nations and the Norwegian Forestry Society.
Despite the growth of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai's personal life suffered. Her husband divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded and unmanageable. While participating in protests against corruption and government inaction, she was tear-gassed and beaten unconscious by police. Kenya’s president referred to her as "a crazy woman," and she was pilloried by the country's leading politicians. In 1992, believing she was a target for arrest or assassination, Maathai barricaded herself in her home for three days until police ripped the bars off her windows and threw Maathai and other activists in prison for several days.
These challenges only seemed to strengthen Maathai's resolve. She continued to push for democracy, equal rights for women, and environmental protection. In 2002, Maathai won a seat as a member of Parliament; she also served as Kenya's Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources.
Wangari Maathai and the Nobel Prize
In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for what the Nobel committee called "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Maathai continued working on the causes dearest to her: environmental conservation, democratic activism, and equality for women. Maathai also published an autobiography, Unbowed: A Memoir, in 2006.
Years after its founding, it was estimated that Maathai's Green Belt Movement had planted over 30 million trees in Africa and had helped nearly 900,000 women find employment, according to the United Nations.
On September 25, 2011, Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer at the age of 71. She was lauded by an international multitude of supporters, including Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations' environmental program: "Wangari Maathai was a force of nature," he said.
Maathai may be best remembered by a statement she made when accepting her Nobel Peace Prize: "In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now."