Wangari Maathai: First black African woman to win a Nobel Prize



Wangari Maathai 1940–

Environmental activist

Joined the Fight For Women’s Rights

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Founded Green Belt

Uphill Battle Against Government

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Fought Government By Joining It


Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai—an activist, feminist, mother, environmentalist, and member of the Kenyan parliament—was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in Kenya in 2003. Maathai is a qualified professor of veterinary medicine, and today she is internationally recognized as the founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya. The Movement is a grassroots, non-governmental organization (NGO) that concentrates on environmental conservation and community development by planting trees to protect the soil and empowers women by teaching them basic skills on environmentalism and creating jobs.

Maathai has not only had the courage to stand up for her beliefs, but she has risked her life for her beliefs. In 1992, Maathai was hospitalized after she was beaten unconscious by police during a hunger strike, which was not the first time she has been assaulted. Seven years later, when the Movement attempted to replace trees cut by real estate developers, Maathai and her group were attacked, leaving her head gashed and many of her supporters injured. On some occasions law enforcement officers have simply looked the other way. At one time Amnesty International sponsored a letter writing campaign to the Kenyan government and President Arap Moi to get her freed. Under constant threats so serious that for a time she was forced to go into hiding, she has never given up her cause. In Currents Magazineshe reflects that “Despite continuing and constant opposition, the movement grows and expands. It shows that something can be done. Sometimes I marvel at the work we’ve done, despite the fact that maybe half of our time is spent just trying to survive. I wonder what we would have achieved if the government was supporting us instead of intimidating us.

Joined the Fight For Women’s Rights


Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya, on April 1, 1940, and did not start school until she was eight years old. She was enrolled at Itithe Primary School, where she did very well. Four years later she was accepted at St. Cecilia’s School, where she remained until 1955. The following year she was selected to attend Loreto Girls’ School, in Lumuru, Kenya, graduating four years later. Maathai was very fortunate to have an opportunity to further her education in the United States following her

At a Glance…

Born Wangari Muta Maathai on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya; divorced; children: three. Education:Mount St. Scholastica College, Atchison, Kansas, BA, 1964; University of Pittsburgh, MA, 1965; University of Nairobi, PhD.

Career: University of Nairobi, research assistant, 1970s, associate professor of Animal science, 1970s, Chair of Veterinary Anatomy, 1976, professor of Veterinary Anatomy, 1977–; Green Belt Movement (formally Envirocare), founder and president, 1977–; National Council of Women of Kenya, chair, 1981–87; Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, co–chair, 2000; Kenyan Parliament, Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife, 2002–.

Awards: Better World Society Award, 1986; Windstar Award for the Environment, 1988; Woman of the World, 1989; Honorary Doctor of Law, William’s College, Massachusetts, 1990; Goldman Environmental prize, 1991; Africa Prize for Leadership, the United Nations, 1991; Honorary Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, 1992; Edinburgh Medal, 1993; Jane Adams Conference Leadership Award, 1993; Golden Ark Award, 1994; listed in the United Nation’s Environment Program Global 500 Hall of Fame, 1997; Honorary Doctor of Agriculture, University of Norway, 1997; named one of 100 persons in the world who have made a difference in the environmental arena, Earth Times

Addresses: Office —Old Treasury Building, Harambee Avenue, P.O. Box 30551, Nairobi,- Kenya.

Completion of high school. She traveled to the United States to attend Mount St. Scholastica College, in Atchison, Kansas, earning a BA in 1964; the following year she earned a MA from the University of Pittsburgh.

In the 1960s the African continent was going through major political changes as the colonial powers were replaced by independence and black rule. During this time Maathai returned home to an independent Kenya, taking a position as a research assistant at the University of Nairobi in 1966. Soon afterward, she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, (NCWK) an NGO whose focus was to educate women while advocating for their rights. Maathai’s quest for advanced studies continued as she found herself juggling her time as a mother, student, research assistant, and a women’s rights advocate. She found time to study biological science and went on to obtain a doctorate degree at the University of Nairobi. She would later become head of the veterinary medicine faculty, the first woman in that capacity at any department at that university.

Like many women in lesser developed countries, Kenyan women were also struggling with their daily lives: tending the fields without access to running water or sanitation and walking for miles in search of firewood, a situation which has been worsened by deforestation. In 1989 a report by the United Nationsnoted that on the African continent, on average only 9 trees are planted to replace every 100 trees cut. The result of this magnitude of deforestation is soil erosion and water pollution, which, in turn interferes with animal nutrition and depletes firewood.

Surprisingly, Maathai’s strong advocacy for women’s rights did not sit too well with her husband or other critics. Early in her career, she had married a member of the Kenyan parliament. The marriage produced three children. According to the Encyclopaedia of World Biographies, in seeking a divorce, Matthai’s husband complained that “she was too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.” But what was really difficult for Maathai to understand was the criticism by other women from the ruling party who denounced her as a violator of African tradition for refusing to be submissive.

Founded Green Belt

Maathai’s crusade began while she was doing field work, tracking down the life cycle of a tick. She realized that the mites were not the problem, rather, it was the degraded environment which was affecting the resistance of animals living in the habitat. She could not believe the loss of exotic species incurred by cutting down indigenous forests. A witness to soil erosion caused by treeless environments, she felt compelled to do something to save the earth. During a State of the World Forum conference, she told Marc Ian Barasch, “I went from purest academia to working directly with people.” Soon afterward Maathai took over the leadership of National Council of Women of Kenya, (NCWK) and introduced the idea of planting trees as a way of conserving the environment. It was that simple, as she commented in Currents: “The earth was naked. For me the mission was to try to cover it up with green.”The first tree planting campaign was called Save the Land Harambee, Swahili for “let’s pull together.”Community members were encouraged to plant trees in public land to form green belts of trees. This campaign was so successful and the idea spread so fast that the Green Belt Movement (GBM) was born. The GBM and NCWK have since worked hand-in-hand, promoting tree planting and providing a forum for women’s leadership development training.

The Green Belt Movement’s mission is “to raise community consciousness on self determination, equity, improved livelihood securities and environmental conservation using trees as an entry point.” Thanks largely to the efforts of both the GBM and the NCWK, women learn to communicate assertively, change their environment, improve their lives, set goals, and make their own decisions. The movement also helps small scale farmers become agro-foresters through expert technology transfer, while public awareness is broadened to understand the relationship between population, food production and energy.

In the early 1980s, the Green Belt Movement focused on training its members to conserve the environment in order to improve the quality of their agricultural produce in order to alleviate hunger. This was initiated through a broad cross-Africa environmental grass roots campaign. By 1986 a Pan African Green Belt Movement was established in other countries, including TanzaniaUganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. An international chapter was also established to work outside the continent. Participants from other countries are taught to embrace the movement’s vision and mission, and then concentrate on establishing similar tree planting initiatives in their own countries by using the Green Belt method.

In order to generate income and be able to meet the organization’s expenses, Green Belt Safaris were introduced, offering field trips and home-stays for visitors and supporters. The objective is to engage guests in conservation through educational and cultural exchange programs and expose participants to the Kenyan fauna and flora. For a fee, visitors receive hands-on experience in conservation. Peace tree planting is another of the innovative projects introduced in the 1990s. Peace trees promote conflict resolution between communities with the goal of turning what would have been major disputes into peaceful negotiated cooperation.

Uphill Battle Against Government

Maathai and the Green Belt Movement have faced an uphill confrontation with the previous government, which have harassed her continuously and thrown her in jail. The movement has responded to these actions with civil disobedience. Asked by Barasch how she keeps from hating her enemies, Maathai responded, “The leaders don’t know what they are doing. They are so blinded by greed they genuinely believe they should control all resources. They don’t understand why we are willing to be abused, willing to put ourselves in danger.”

In 1988, Matthai infuriated Arap Moi—then the president of Kenya—when she led an international campaign to prevent the government from erecting the tallest skyscraper on the entire continent. The project would have cost $200 million U.S dollars borrowed from foreign banks. The amount was equivalent to seven percent of Kenya’s annual budget and it would have destroyed recreational space used by primarily the poor people. In an Africa Society profile, Maathai explained, “We already have a debt crisis owing billions to foreign banks. And people are starving, they need food, they need medicine and they need education. They did not need a skyscraper to house the ruling party and a 24-hr. television station. We can provide parks for rhinos and elephants; why can’t we provide open space for people? Why, are we creating an environmental havoc in urban areas?”

Currents noted that Moi was so outraged that he called Matthai “a mad woman who is a threat to the order and security of the country,” and went on to urge the public “to stamp out trouble-makers.” But when it appeared as if no one else cared, Maathai received support from the Kenyan National Museum and the Association of Architects; both opposed the erection of the government building. Above all, Maathai’s opposition to the project prompted an international outcry and the withdrawal of foreign investors’ support and eventually the government halted the plans.

Unfortunately, most of the accolades Maathai has received internationally have not contributed to the Movement’s financial base. Australia and the Netherlands are the only governments that have provided needed financial support. However, the movement receives grant support from the Marion Foundation of Massachusetts. Other partners include Solar Electric Light Fund, which promotes rural solar power in developing nations, and the U.S.-based Lion-heart Foundation, which works with prisoners.

What started as primarily a women’s grass-root organization to preserve the soil and the environment is today generating income for some 80,000 people, with more than 5,000 nurseries throughout Kenya and more than 20 million trees. These trees have had more than an aesthetic effect on Kenyan life and the impact on the environment cannot be denied. Most importantly, the project provides much needed income for women in rural communities, some of whom can hardly read or write. The efforts of Maathai and the movement have contributed to improving their living conditions as well as boosting their self esteem. The process is very simple. The women are trained to cultivate, plant, and properly care for seedlings. Complete orientation and support is provided, while the physical demands of successfully maintaining new seedlings are discussed. Everything must meet the movement’s specifications. The seedlings are then sold to the movement, and the income generated enables the women to pay for their children’s school fees or buy books and clothes.

Besides helping women, the Green Belt Movement under Maathai set out to integrate physically challenged young people by discouraging them from migrating to urban areas to seek employment. Instead they stay home to care for trees in their communities. They also receive training to become Green Belt Rangers, who monitor progress, care for the trees, and advise on local problems. This project has saved many physically challenged youth from winding up unemployed and living in squatter camps in the city. Instead, they are provided with a rewarding experience that also enhances their self-esteem. Involving the whole range of the population—school children, women, farmers, and the physically challenged—can and has made an immeasurable contribution to societal needs and conservation.

Fought Government By Joining It


As if her life was not complicated enough, Maathai decided to challenge the system once more by running for the Kenyan presidency. She was not only harassed, but she was displaced from the race when false reports of her withdrawal were widely distributed. In 1998 Maathai got involved in another worthy cause, chairing the Jubilee Africa Campaign in Kenya, which sought cancellation of foreign debt by poor countries of Africa by year 2000. Many poor governments take on huge loans usually geared for specific projects, but oftentimes because of mismanagement and embezzlement the projects are not completed and the citizens are shortchanged. In her acceptance speech at the 1991 laureate of the Africa Prize Leadership Maathai asked, “Why are the hungry masses forced to repay loans they never received and debts they never incurred? These repayments have become very heavy burdens, impoverishing them, driving them to slums, and creating internal conflicts. They are killing [the poor], through increasing poverty.” Matthai seems unstoppable even after intimidation, harassment, ridicule, battering, and incarceration. Yet she defends the environment and women’s rights tirelessly and passionately.

In 2001, the Green Belt Movement filed suit to prevent a forest clearance project by the Kenya government that included a plan to clear 69,000 hectares of woodland to house homeless squatters. Maathai believed that it was the government’s deliberate ploy to gain support in the coming elections. Reuters reported that she commented, “It’s a matter of life and death for this country, we are extremely worried. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem.”

Matthai’s future plans include another worthy cause: she hopes to establish a center to house battered women and children. This is an enormous undertaking that will require a lot of support, education, and resources. Many African men will need to be persuaded as they might see this as an intrusion into their culture. Oftentimes they treat women as personal property, especially among those who have paid exorbitant amounts of money for the bride price. Successful programs in Europe and the United Statesinclude components for counseling both the victims and the perpetrators. Many Africans will have to change their mind-set and treat men who abuse women and children as law-breakers. On the other hand, African women should not be content to remain as victims; they should be aware that they have choices and human rights. Matthai was elected member of parliament in the new government and appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. Now as she serves as a lawmaker, she is in a good position to support or enact laws that will protect women’s rights as human rights.

Such commitment has earned Maathai many accolades and acclaim. Among the many prizes and recognitions bestowed upon her is the 1991 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most prestigious in the world. In that same year she also received the United Nations Africa Prize for Leadership. She received the Edinburgh Medal in 1992, and in 1997, she was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 persons in the world who have made a difference in the field of environmentalism. And what a difference she has made.



Encyclopaedia of World Biographies, Gale, 1999.


Daily (University of Washington), October 28, 1999.

E Magazine, July/August 2002.

In Context, Spring 1991, p. 55.


“Acceptance Address by Professor Wangari Maathai,” The Hunger (January 21, 2004).

Amnesty International, (January 21, 2004).

“Bottle-Necks of Development in Africa,” Gift of Speech (January 21, 2004).

“Dr. Wangari Maathai,” Africa Society Profile, (January 21, 2004).

“Environmental Hero: Wangari Maathai,” Environmental News Network, (January 21, 2004).

“Guerilla of the Week: Wangari Maathai,” Guerilla News Network, (January 21, 2004).

“Kenyan Greens File Suit to Stop Forest Clearance,” Planet Ark (Reuters Daily World Environment News) (January 21, 2004).

“Saving the World Tree by Tree,” State of the World Forum, (January 21, 2004).

“Wangari Maathai,” Goldman Prize Recipient Profile, (January 21, 2004).

—Doris H. Mabunda


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