Born on April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District in the central highlands of Kenya, Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize "for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.". Her Nobel Lecture was inspirational and insightful, beginning with her recognition of how important this moment was not just for her, but for African people and women everywhere.
"As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honour also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and urge them to use it to pursue their dreams."
After graduating first in her class from St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School, Wangari Maathai was accepted into the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya. She went on to be one of 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States in September 1960 through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. With a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Kansas, Maathai majored in biology with minors in chemistry and German, receiving her bachelors degree in 1964, and an MSc from the University of Pittsburg in 1966.
In 1969, Tom Mboya, who had been instrumental in founding the program which sent her overseas, was assassinated. Maathai, who was already politically active in the country, was studying and working as an assistant lecturer at the University College of Nairobi, as well as having given birth to her first child that year. Two short years later in 1971, she became the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to take a doctorate (in biology.) In December, her daughter Wanjira was born.
Continuing to teach in Nairobi, Maathai became senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to any of these positions, and the first female lecturer in Kenya. She used these roles to campaign for equal benefits for the women working at the university, many of which were met.
Maathai also became involved in the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, and was appointed as director in 1973. She was a member of the Kenyan Association of University Women, board chair of the Environment Liason Centre and joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK,) eventually becoming chair person of the organisation. In 1974 she had her third child and established Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved the planting of trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. Although this project ultimately failed (largely due to funding), it led to Maathai attending the first UN conference on human settlements, known as
Habitat 1, in June 1979. She spoke to the NCWK about Habitat 1 and proposed further tree planting. On World Environment Day, 1977 (5 June), the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre to Kamukunji Park, where they planted seven tress in honour of historical community leaders. This was the first ever event of the Green Belt Movement. The campaign encouraged women to think ecologically and to plant trees in their local environments, and spread to other African countries contributing to the planting of over thirty million trees. Maathai's mobilisation of African women was not limited in its vision to work for sustainable development; she saw tree-planting in a broader perspective which included democracy, women's rights, and international solidarity. In the words of the Nobel Committee: "She thinks globally and acts locally."
Maathai’s husband, Mwangi Mathai, filed for divorce in 1979. He is known to have said that she was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her" and demanded that she drop his last name. Maathai chose to keep the name and add an extra “a.” He also accused her of adultery, claiming that this caused his high blood pressure. The judge ruled in his favour and shortly after the trial, Maathai referred to him as corrupt or incompetent in an interview with Viva magazine. The judge then charged Maathai with contempt of court and sentenced her to six months in jail, of which Maathai served three days in Lang'ata Women's Prison in Nairobi.
The Parliamentary seat representing Nyeri (Maathai’s home region) became open in 1982 and she decided to campaign for it. In order to do this, she had to resign her job in the university. However, due to politics, she was disqualified from running for the elections and was not able to get back her job at the university. Maathai focussed her energy on the Green Belt movement from here.
In 1989, Maathai learned that the government planned to build a 62-story skyscraper, which would act as the headquarters for the ruling party of autocratic leader, Daniel arap Moi, in Uhuru Park. Maathai, writing to everyone she could in protest, likened these plans to plans to build a tower in the middle of Hyde Park or Central Park.
The government responded to her only though insults in the media. She was denounced by the President and insulted by the government with Moi retaliating her opposition, calling her a “crazy woman” and saying that it was “un-African and unimaginable for a woman to challenge or oppose men”. The government also forced the Green Belt Movement and Professor Maathai to vacate the office. However, the negative publicity in media coverage and the government response to the opposition led to foreign investors cancelling the project.
It came to the attention of Maathai and other pro-democracy activists in January 1992 that a list of people were targeted for assassination and that a government-sponsored coup was possible. Maathai's name was on the list. The pro-democracy group, known as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), presented its information to the media, calling for a general election. Later that day, Maathai received a warning that one of their members had been arrested. Maathai decided to barricade herself in her home. Shortly thereafter, police arrived and surrounded the house. She was besieged for three days before police cut through the bars she had installed on her windows, came in, and arrested her. She and the other pro-democracy activists who had been arrested were charged with spreading malicious rumours, sedition, and treason. After a day and a half in jail, they were brought to a hearing and released on bail. A variety of international organisations put pressure on the Kenyan government to substantiate the charges against the pro-democracy activists or risk damaging relations. In November 1992, the Kenyan government dropped the charges.
On 28 February 1992, while released on bail, Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike in a corner of Uhuru Park, which they labelled Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners. After four days of hunger strike, on 3 March 1992, the police forcibly removed the protesters. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalised. President Daniel arap Moi called her "a mad woman" and "a threat to the order and security of the country". The attack drew international criticism. When the prisoners were not released, the protesters – mostly mothers of those in prison – moved their protest across from Uhuru Park. to All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya. The protest continued, with Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.
During the first multi-party election of Kenya, in 1992, Maathai strove to unite the opposition and for fair elections in Kenya. Ethnic clashes occurred throughout Kenya at this time. Maathai believed they were incited by the government, who had warned of stark consequences to multi-party democracy. Maathai travelled with friends and the press to areas of violence in order to encourage them to cease fighting. With the Green Belt Movement she planted "trees of peace", but before long her actions were opposed by the government. The conflict areas were labelled as "no go zones", and in February 1993 the president claimed that Maathai had masterminded a distribution of leaflets inciting Kikuyus to attack Kalenjins. After her friend and supporter Dr. Makanga was kidnapped, Maathai chose to go into hiding. While in hiding, Maathai was invited to a meeting in Tokyo of the Green Cross International, an environmental organization recently founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When Maathai responded that she could not attend as she did not believe the government would allow her to leave the country and she was in hiding, Gorbachev pressured the government of Kenya to allow her to travel freely. President arap Moi denied limiting her travel, and she was allowed to leave the country, although too late for the meeting in Tokyo. Maathai was again recognized internationally, and she flew to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal in April 1993. In May she went to Chicago to receive the Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award, and in June she attended the UN's World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.
In November 1997, less than two months before an election, she decided to run for parliament and for president as a candidate of the Liberal Party. Her intentions were widely questioned in the press; many believed she should simply stick to running the Green Belt Movement and stay out of politics. On the day of the election, a rumour that Maathai had withdrawn from the election and endorsed another candidate was printed in the media. Maathai garnered few votes and lost the election.
In August 1999 allocation of the public land was banned although logging within the forest went on until a new government was elected in 2002, forming a partnership to restore the Karura Forest.
In 2001, the government again planned to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. While protesting this and collecting petition signatures on 7 March 2001 in Wang'uru village near Mount Kenya, Maathai was again arrested. The next day, following international and popular protest at her arrest, she was released without being charged. Maathai was arrested again on 7 July 2001, shortly after planting trees at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to commemorate Saba Saba Day. Once more, she was released without being charged.
In 2002 Maathai went back to teaching and led a course on sustainable development focused on the work of the Green Belt Movement at the Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Upon her return to Kenya, Maathai again campaigned for parliament in the 2002 elections, this time as a candidate of the National Rainbow Coalition, the umbrella organisation which finally united the opposition. On 27 December 2002, the Rainbow Coalition defeated the ruling party Kenya African National Union, and in Tetu Constituency Maathai won with an overwhelming 98% of the vote. In January 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and served in that capacity until November 2005. She founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 to allow candidates to run on a platform of conservation as embodied by the Green Belt Movement. It is a member of the Federation of Green Parties of Africa and the Global Greens.
After winning the Nobel Peace Price in 2004, in 2005 she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by the eleven Heads of State in the Congo region. The following year, 2006, she founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with her sister laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams, and Mairead Corrigan. In 2007, Professor Maathai was invited to be co-chair of the Congo Basin Fund, an initiative by the British and the Norwegian governments to help protect the Congo forests.
In recognition of her deep commitment to the environment, the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General named Professor Maathai a UN Messenger of Peace in December 2009, with a focus on the environment and climate change. In 2010 she was appointed to the Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group: a panel of political leaders, business people and activists established with the aim to galvanise worldwide support for the achievement of the Millennium
In the late 1990s, the government wanted to sell of parts of the Karura Forest, a 2500 acre forest vital to Nairobi’s air, to build luxury housing. Maathai mobilised the GBM to campaign against the clearing of the land and attempted to plant trees in order to reclaim the forest. However, they were attacked by a group of young men and the trees they planted were uprooted. They were also denied access into their nursery in the forest by the police. Later on, they faced with a violent attack from the guards of the forests and resulting in a bloody fight. The campaign received international attention and had received the support from the United Nations Environment Programme.
During this time, Maathai was recognised with various awards internationally, but her own government did not appreciate her work. In 1991 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership in London. CNN aired a three-minute segment about the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment was cut out. In June 1992, during the long protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The Kenyan government accused Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. Despite this, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson.
Development Goals (MDGs). Also in 2010, Professor Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust, established to safeguard the public land for whose protection she had fought for almost twenty years. That same year, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI). The WMI will bring together academic research—e.g. in land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies—with the Green Belt Movement approach and members of the organisation.
In her 2010 book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, she discussed the impact of the Green Belt Movement, explaining that the group's civic and environmental seminars stressed "the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilising to address their local needs," and adding, "We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighbourhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change."
Professor Maathai died on 25 September 2011 at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. Memorial ceremonies were held in Kenya, New York, San Francisco, and London.
“I kept stumbling and falling and stumbling and falling as I searched for the good. ‘Why?’ I asked myself. Now I believe that I was on the right path all along, particularly with the Green Belt Movement, but then others told me that I shouldn’t have a career, that I shouldn’t raise my voice, that women are supposed to have a master. That I needed to be someone else. Finally I was able to see that if I had a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was okay the way I was. That it was all right to be strong.”