Wangari Maathai

Quick Look At Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai was a political and environmental activist and a Pan-Africanist. She was also the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and the first woman within East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

Early Life and Education

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, Africa. At the time she was born, Kenya was still a British colony. When she turned 8, her parents made the decision to send her to school. At this time, it was very uncommon for a female to attend school. She attended a local primary school, and here, she proved to be an outstanding scholar. Maathai continued her education on to high school and attended Loreto Girls' High school. She continued to excel academically and she won a scholarship to attend college in America. Maathai went to a college in Kansas called Mount St. Scholastica College. Maathai graduated in 1964 with her bachelor's degree in biology. Just two years after that, she earned her master's degree in biological science from the University of Pittsburgh.


Two movements that were occurring in the U.S. were to inspire Maathai's career. These were the anti-Vietnam war movement and the Civil Rights movement. She went home to Kenya to study veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. In 1971, Wangari Maathai made history by becoming the first woman between East and Central Africa to earn her doctorate. She also taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi while earning her Ph.D. In the year 1976, Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, and she also became an associate professor. This made her the first woman in East Africa to do both of these things. Maathai joined the National Council of Women of Kenya and served as a chairwoman five years in. While she was on the council, she was inspired with the idea of planting trees in order to help the environment and improve the quality of life. Human development resulted in the destruction of many of Kenya's forests and Mathaai wanted to do something about that. Her efforts were mostly to aid women with income and resources. Mathaai explained to the People magazine, "Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted, so we decided to solve both problems together." In 1977, she launched the Green Belt which was responsible for planting a total of over 30 million trees on farms, schools, and church compound. The Green Belt movement involved thousands of women planting trees around the nations to solve two of their nation's problems with one solution. Not only did the movement greatly improve the environment, but it also helped provide at least 30,000 Kenyan women with newfound skills and opportunities. In 1986, the Green Belt movement became a continent-wide movement. In 1989, Maathai and others apart of the movement protested in one of their nation's parks to prevent the building of a skyscraper that was to harm the environment and force the destruction of trees in the park. Her efforts paid off because eventually, the construction of this building was called off. In 1990, Maathai held another protest in "Freedom Corner," the nickname that the park where she first protested was held. Green Belt started as a movement that focused on environmental improvement, but not long after, the movement also began to focus on political issues. At Freedom Corner, Maathai was protesting and demanding the release of people who were imprisoned for their political beliefs. Here, she was badly beaten and injured. She later said, "Nobody would have bothered me if all I did was encourage women to plant trees. But I started seeing the linkages between the problems that we were dealing with and the root causes of environmental degradation. And one of those root causes was misgovernance." In 2002, Maathai earned a seat in Kenya's parliament, and in 2004, she made history yet again by becoming the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2006, Maathai published her story in a book titled, Unbowed.

On September 25, 2011, Wangari Maathai lost her battle with cancer. In her life, she was awarded honorary doctorates from several universities, and she helped provide tens of thousands of women with job opportunities. Maathai was simply outstanding, and she made history in so many different ways.