Wangari Maathai

Kenyan environmental activist, the late Wangari Maathai was born on April 1st 1940 in Nyeri District, and grew up in a small village in the central highlands of Kenya. Her family moved to Rift Valley while she was still young because her father worked in a white owned farm. Her young experiences living close to land contributed strongly to her motive for promoting natural landscape conservation. During those years, it was unusual for a girl to attend school, but her parents sent her to a local primary school when she was 8 years old. At 11 years of age, Wangari was sent to a Catholic boarding school where she converted into a Catholic. In her childhood, Kenya was at a period where it was trying to seek independence from British colonization, and the Mau Mau uprising was fighting British governance.

Date Event
1960 Wangari Wins scholarship to study in the US.

Maathai continued with her education at Loreto Girls High School in 1960 where she won a scholarship to attend college in the United States of America. Maathai went to Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and in 1964 she earned herself a bachelor’s degree in biology. Two years later, at the University of Pittsburgh, Maathai finished her masters in biological sciences. Maathai was inspired by the anti-Vietnam War and the civil rights movements that took place in the United States.

1971 Mathaai becomes first East African woman to earn a doctorate.

Later, Maathai returned to her country Kenya and joined the University of Nairobi to study veterinary anatomy. In 1971, she made history for becoming the first East African woman to earn a doctorate. Despite the opposition and skepticism of the faculty and male students, she worked up through the academic ranks and later became the head of the faculty of veterinary medicine. She was the first woman in the region to chair a university department. The year was 1976. Maathai used her position to campaign for equal benefits for women staff, and several of her campaigns bore results.

1974 Wangari Maathai makes her first attempts towards environmental conservation

Mid 1970s, Maathai became worried about the adverse effects of environmental degradation on the social and economic status of Kenya. Deforestation was leading to more droughts, landslips, lack of rain water, poor harvests and inter-tribal conflicts as people fought for the limited resources. Wangari felt the urge to protect the environment because she knew that was the only way to prevent these social and economic problems. In 1974, her husband became a Member of Parliament and Maathai took it upon herself to support his promises of employing the rising number of unemployed people. It was around this time that Maathai made an attempt to create a tree planting foundation. Lack of money disadvantaged her effort, but she was awarded a trip to the UN conference on human settlements in 1976. This gave her a better chance to advocate for more tree planting in order to improve the environment.

1977 The birth of the Green Belt Movement

Maathai felt that Kenyan lands and forests were being endangered due to development demands, which impacted greatly on the environment. She launched the green belt movement in 1977 for the sole purpose of ensuring that tree would be planted while at the same time helping Kenya’s women. Green Belt was seeking to promote environmental conservation in Kenya and Africa. The movement planted trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking. According to Maathai “Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted”. This triggered her to form the green belt movement to ensure that both problems would be solved.

1980 Green Belt changes the lives of women.

The program has been primarily carried out by women living in Kenyan villages. These women protect the environment and plant trees to receive income that they use to better the care for their children. Early 1980’s Maathai was elected chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK),a position she held until her retirement in 1987.

1989 The birth of the ‘Freedom Corner’

The movement proved to be successful through planting more than 30 million trees and providing around 30000 women with new opportunities and skills in Kenya. Maathai was not happy with how the government was handling its land for the purpose of development. Maathai was one of the biggest critics of the then president Daniel Arap Moi, and on several occasions she was arrested and beaten up. In 1989, Maathai and her organization staged on of the most famous actions protesting the construction of a skyscraper. The protest, staged at Nairobi’s Uhuru Park attracted international attention leading to the drop of the project. The place where the demonstration was held later became the famous “Freedom Corner”.

1997 Wangari runs for presidency

The following year, Wangari Maathai was badly injured when she protested for the release of political prisoners. The green belt movement had started as an environmental movement, but it was turning into a political effort. According to Maathai, misgovernance formed the biggest linkage between the problems that Green belt handled and the root cause of environmental degradation. In 1991 she was arrested and imprisoned only to be released by an Amnesty International campaign. Wangari Maathai ran for presidency in 1997. However, her party went against her wish and withdrew her candidacy days before the election, making her lose the presidency and the parliamentary seat. In 1999, she suffered head injuries after being attacked while planting trees in Karura forest as part of a protest for deforestation.

2003 Maathai appointed assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife.

Maathai remained a strong critic of the Kenyan government until the end of Moi’s regime in December 2002. Maathai had campaigned for the restoration of democracy in Kenya and she also tried to earn herself a seat in parliament. Finally, her effort paid when President Kibaki appointed her as the deputy minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife in January, 2003. She served this position between 2003 and 2005.

2004 Wangari Maathai receives the Nobel Peace Prize

In 2004, she received one of the most remarkable honors, The Nobel Peace Prize. This was because of her major contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. In her Nobel speech, Maathai emphasized that picking her for the prize challenged the world to further their understanding of peace because there can be no peace without equitable development and development is only possible if there is sustainable management of the environment in a peaceful and democratic place. In that speech, she also requested for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, a fellow activist.

2005 Wangari carries on with environmental conservation

In addition to the green belt movement, Maathai was also the founder of UNEP’S Million Tree Campaign and she shed her blood leading a group of citizens into confronting thugs who had been hired by developers to grab part of the forest. Since the inception of Friends of Karura in 2009, Wangari had been friends with the organization as the Honorary Chairperson, providing her influence and inspiration to ensure the organization followed the right paths with regards to the forest.

25,September,2011 Sunset for Prof. Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was also one of the founders of Nobel Women’s initiative along other women. She passed on September 25th 2011 at the age of 71 years, after battling complications arising from ovarian cancer. Maathai was survived by her three children: Muta, Wanjira and Waweru. Kenya and the world had lost a great leader for both the environment and the people. The next time you visit Karura, look around and think of Wangari Maathai. Thank her for everything you see.

8,October,2014 Academic Appointments

Wangari Maathai's Academic Appointments

8,October,2014 Wangari Maathai's Personal Achievements

Personal Achievements

8,October,2014 Wangari Maathai's Professional Affiliations

Professional Affiliations

8,October,2014 Wangari Maathai's Awards


8,October,2014 Other Awards

Other Awards

8,October,2014 Taking Root Documentary

"It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in." - Wangari Maathai

8,October,2014 The life and times of Prof. Wangari Maathai

Prof. Wangari Maathai was a woman of many firsts. She overcame all odds to become the first woman in East and Central Africa to be awarded a PhD, she was also the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize. She rose to international limelight following her consistent fight with the Moi administration.