Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940 to a family of farmers, giving her a deep connection to the land. At that time, Kenya was a British colony, and British officials held the power to make decisions for the Kenyan people. But as Maathai was growing up, the British government was in the process of handing power back to the native Kenyans to form their own government, creating a climate of political upheaval and turmoil.

Maathai wanted to be part of this new government and knew she needed an education to do so. Through the Kennedy airlift, a program designed to give African students access to Western schools, she was able to attend college in Kansas and Pennsylvania. She then returned to Kenya and studied at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate and the first-ever female professor in her home country of Kenya.

Still, Maathai craved more than the life of an academic—she wanted to work with the government to promote democracy and protect the rights of women. That led her to serve on the National Council of Women of Kenya, a government group that hears the concerns of Kenyan women and works to alleviate them. Maathai heard stories of rural women whose streams were drying up, whose food supply was insecure, and who were running out of wood for fuel and fencing, and she introduced the idea of planting trees. The young trees would help the soil hold rainwater, fully grown trees could provide food, and mature trees could be harvested for wood.

In 1977, to carry out this plan, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement—a grassroots effort aimed at countering the deforestation that was threatening the agricultural population. The campaign encouraged women to plant trees in their local environments and to think ecologically, with the goal of conserving the environment and improving quality of life. Over time, the Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries and contributed to the planting of over 30 million trees.

In addition, Maathai took it upon herself to educate local farmers, especially the women, on how to protect their rights. Soon, the Green Belt Movement was conducting seminars on civic engagement, encouraging people to push for independence and government accountability. Ever since, the Green Belt Movement has been a powerful voice in Kenya and the world, fighting for democracy, women’s empowerment, and environmental justice.

Maathai earned great acclaim and recognition, but perhaps most notably, she received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace—the first African woman to be given the award. In the words of the Nobel Committee, “She thinks globally and acts locally.”

In December 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to the Kenyan parliament with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote. She died in Nairobi, Kenya, in September 2011.