Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2004. This true Kenyan heroine was also the first indigenous woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and the founder of the Green Belt Movement.
In this article, we’ll dive deep into how this true African educator transformed a good idea of planting trees using ordinary people into a formidable movement.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in the year 1940 in a small village called Ihithe in Nyeri County formerly known as Nyeri District. She was the third born in a family of three siblings. Her father was a small-scale tenant farmer, while her mother was a traditional housewife. At the time of her birth, education for women and girls was not valued or encouraged. However, from a very young age, little Wangari showed signs of intelligence and this prompted her older brother to persuade their parents to send her to school when she was just seven years old.
She began her education in the year 1948 at Ihithe Primary School where she sat for the Kenya Primary Examination in the year 1951 and managed to score Grade One. She then proceeded to Mathari Intermediate School where she also excelled on her Kenya African Preliminary Examination in the year 1955, earning Division One. This outstanding performance earned her a place at Loreto High School in Limuru, where she sat for the Cambridge School Certificate in the year 1959 and managed to score the 1st Division topping the rest of the students in her class.
As a top-rated student, young Wangari was selected along with the other 300 Kenyans in September 1960 to study in the United States through the Joseph Kennedy Foundation. She was awarded a scholarship to attend Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas where she graduated with a degree in biology in 1964. She then enrolled for further studies at the University of Pittsburgh and graduated with a Degree in Master of Science in Biological Sciences in 1966. Upon graduation, Wangari returned to Kenya after being offered a job position as a research assistant to a professor of zoology at the University of Nairobi.
Unfortunately, she did not get the job. It was offered to someone else. Maathai attributed her failure to get the job as a result of gender and tribal bias ness. Luckily, after two months of job hunting, she was finally offered a position as a research assistant in the microanatomy section of the newly established Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. It was also during this time that she met her future husband, Mr. Mwangi Mathai, another Kenyan who had also studied in America. They married in May of 1969 the same year she became pregnant with her firstborn, a son named Waweru. She also became the first woman in East and Central Africa to receive a doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy, from the University of Nairobi in the year 1971, which coincidentally was the same year her daughter, Wanjira was born.
From the year 1975 to 1977, Professor Wangari Maathai worked at the University of Nairobi, rising through the ranks to become a senior lecturer in anatomy in the year 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the year 1976, and associate professor in the year 1977. She also advocated for equal benefits for women at the university, going as far as trying to turn the university’s academic staff association into a union for the sake of facilitating collective bargaining agreements.
Aside from her work at the University of Nairobi, Professor Wangari Maathai also involved herself in a number of civic organizations. She was a member of the Kenya Red Cross Society, the National Council of Women of Kenya, and the Environment Liaison Centre. While working in these organizations, she was able to identify the link between environmental degradation and poverty in Kenya. In fact, Professor Wangari Maathai identified deforestation as the root cause of the scarcity of resources and conflicts among villages. She sought to put an end to this conflict by founding the Green Belt Movement whose aim entailed encouraging farmers, primarily women, to plant “greenbelts” of trees. The movement compensated women as well as empowered them by providing services such as family planning, nutrition, and leadership training.
It was also while leading the Green Belt Movement that Professor Wangari Maathai was able to hit the headlines in the year 1989 after conducting a protest against the construction of a 60-story building in Uhuru Park. Her outcry sparked a lot of backlashes and character assassination, to the extent that the government claimed Maathai to be insane and a threat to national Security.
In their efforts to prevent the demolition of the Park, the Kenya High Court still granted the go-ahead for the project to take place which was later pulled out by the investors as a result of its negative publicity.
Professor Wangari Maathai also faced another major backlash from the government of Kenya when she led a protest against the construction of a golf course within Karura Forest in the year 1999. This protest gained international outburst when a film of police brutally injuring Professor Wangari Maathai together with a group of protesters that included six opposition Members of parliament, journalists, international observers, and Green Belt members hit the headlines. As a result, protests by students erupted across Nairobi and continued until August 16, 1999, when the president finally announced the ban on all allocations of public land.
Her constant opposition to the former president came at a price as she was constantly imprisoned, beaten, and targeted by the government due to her activism. This continued until president Moi was defeated in a multiparty election in 2002. It was also during this time that Maathai was elected as a Member of Parliament and Assistant Minister for the Environment by the newly elected president; Mwai Kibaki.
As an environmental activist, Maathai received numerous international awards. To mention a few, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco in the year 1991, as well as the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in London. She also became the first African woman to receive the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize in the year 2004 for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”
Last Years & Death.
As a leading activist, Professor Wangari Maathai continued to travel the world giving talks about key global issues such as the environment and social injustice before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 2011. Following her demise, the Green Belt Movement has continued with her spirit by planting trees, providing civic education, and demanding accountability from government leaders. To date, the movement has led to the plantation of more than 51 million trees globally.
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