Wangarĩ Maathai was a Kenyan social, political and environmental activist who was a leading figure in the environmentalist movement in Africa and across the world. She is well-known for her focus on reforestation (the planting of trees) and women’s rights; for being the first woman in East and Central Africa to get a PhD (Doctor of Philosophy); and for being the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Maathai was born in 1940 in Kenya’s central highlands. She attended her village primary school with her brother before moving to a Catholic boarding school at the age of eleven. Completing her studies in 1956 and being rated first in her class, she was accepted to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya at the time. During her time there, East African colonialism was coming to an end, and she was one of 300 Kenyans selected to study at university in America under the ‘Kennedy Airlift’ education programme.
Under a full scholarship at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, Maathai studied Biology, Chemistry and German, and went on to achieve a Master’s degree in Biology at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966. It was in Pittsburgh where she first became interested in saving the environment, as local activists pushed to reduce air pollution in the city. After a brief return to Kenya, she travelled to the University of Giessen and University of Munich, both in Germany, to pursue a doctorate (an advanced degree). In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD, her doctorate being in veterinary anatomy (the bodily make-up of animals) which she received from the University College of Nairobi.
Maathai’s academic career did not slow down, teaching at the University of Nairobi where she was eventually made a professor in 1977. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the female university staff, becoming a member of the Kenya Association of University Women. She also became more vocal and active about her concerns surrounding negative environmental impacts across Kenya. She founded Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved planting trees to protect the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery (a protected space for young trees) in Karura Forest. Although the project failed, her interest in tree planting ultimately led to her founding the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental, non-profit movement that focuses on protecting the environment and improving communities in many ways, including planting trees.
Maathai‘s Green Belt Movement faced much opposition, and was viewed as a threat by the Kenyan government because of their pro-democracy views. Maathai was labelled a “crazy woman” due to her opposition to a huge 60-storey construction project in Uhuru Park. President Moi suggested Maathai respect men and be quiet – a comment typical of the sexism she had faced throughout her life. However, the protests and the government’s response led to foreign investors cancelling the project in 1990, which was a huge success for Maathai and what she stood for.Maathai continued to be active in politics and environmental activism, protesting and petitioning against government plans to privatise large areas of public land in the Karura Forest in 1998 and 2001. Maathai was injured and arrested several times but managed to gain significant national and international support. In 2002, she was elected to parliament as Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003. In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” the first African woman and first environmentalist to do so.