Wangari Maathai Biography
April 1, 1940 • Nyeri, Kenya
Human rights activist, environmentalist
In 2004 Wangari Maathai became an internationally recognized figure by becoming the first black woman and the first environ-mentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Her honor, however, did not come without controversy. Maathai was best known as the founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), an initiative to plant trees in forested areas of Kenya that were being stripped for commercial expansion. Critics wondered whether a "tree planter" was truly a peace activist. For Maathai there was an important link between the environment and peace. Most of the people involved with GBM are rural African women who, over the years, have planted nearly thirty million trees. As a result they have reaped the rewards of food, fuel, shelter, and employment. More importantly, they have achieved control over their own lives. In an interview with the Progressive Maathai commented on her Nobel win: "I wasn't working on the issue of peace specifically. I was contributing toward peace, and that is what the committee recognized: that, indeed, we need to step back and look at a more expanded concept of peace and security."
Respect for the soil
Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya. The Republic of Kenya is located on the eastern coast of Africa and is divided into seven provinces; Nyeri is the capital of the Central province. Like many Kenyans Maathai came from a farming family, and as she remarked to Judith Stone of O Magazine, her parents taught her to "respect the soil and its bounty." "I grew up close to my mother," Maathai further explained to Stone, "in the field, where I could observe nature."
Maathai's home life was very much like other Kenyans in other ways as well. Her father was considered the head of the house; her mother had very little power and performed traditional "women's tasks" such as fetching water and gathering firewood. In particular, education for women and girls was not valued, or even encouraged. But Maathai was extremely bright, and her older brother persuaded their parents to send her to school when she was seven years old. She did so well in her studies that in 1960 Maathai earned a scholarship to attend college in the United States.
Maathai attended Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she was
"We need to rethink our concept of peace and security. We need to look at the way we manage and share our resources. Only then do we have hope."
known to her classmates as Mary Jo. After earning a bachelor's degree in biology in 1964 she went on to receive a master's degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) in 1965. In many interviews Maathai claimed that her years in the United States had a profound effect on her, especially since she was exposed to the many demonstrations against the Vietnam War (1954–75; a controversial war in which the United States aided South Vietnam in its fight against a takeover by Communist North Vietnam). Watching Americans express themselves made Maathai realize that people had a right to speak out for what they believed in.
Although she enjoyed her experiences in the United States, Maathai decided to return to Kenya, where, in 1971 she completed her doctoral studies in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in East or Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. Maathai then joined the faculty of the university as a professor of veterinary anatomy, becoming the first woman to hold a professorship at the school. During the early 1970s the fledgling instructor married and had three children. Her husband, Mwangi Maathai, was a politician who divorced his wife in the mid-1980s, claiming that she was too educated and too difficult to control.
A simple plan for a complex problem
While still a professor Maathai became involved in politics herself when she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya, an organization devoted to bettering the status of African women. While speaking to people living in rural areas, she discovered that the government had induced farmers to switch from growing crops for themselves to producing cash crops, such as coffee and tea, for exporting. As a result, large expanses of forested land had been cleared to make room for more commercial farm production. Such change had a damaging effect on rural family life, especially for women. They could no longer grow food for their children because nutrients in the soil were depleted; they had no access to firewood, which was their main source of energy; livestock suffered because there was no vegetation to graze on; and streams were drying up or were polluted by soil runoff, resulting in a lack of drinking water.
Considering how enormous the issues were, Maathai felt that an immediate and straightforward plan was needed. She came up with a simple solution: plant trees. As Maathai explained to Michelle Martin of Catholic New World, "It occurred to me that some of the problems women talked about were connected to the land. If you plant trees you give them firewood. If you plant trees you give them food." On Earth Day in 1977 Maathai put her plan into action by planting seven trees to honor Kenyan women environmental leaders. (Earth Day is an annual day set aside to honor and celebrate the environment.) Later that year, with backing from the National Council of Women, the budding environmentalist quit teaching and formed the Green Belt Movement. The group started small, with only a handful of villagers gathering seeds and planting them.
At first, government officials laughed at the program, claiming that only professional foresters knew how to plant trees. But eventually the first small groups of villagers trained other groups and over the next thirty years, more than thirty million trees were planted. Six thousand tree nurseries were created and operated by women, and jobs were provided for more than one hundred thousand people. Most importantly, an enormous power shift occurred as women began to take control of their futures. As authors Anne and Frances Lapp explained in Mother Earth News, "Women discovered they were not powerless in the face of oppressive husbands and village chiefs."
Although planting trees was the most visible Green Belt campaign, it was not its only focus. With support from the National Council of Women, Maathai created programs aimed at educating Kenyan women in areas such as family planning, nutrition, and leadership development. The movement also created a food-security campaign to reintroduce crops originally grown in the region and to reestablish kitchen gardens for individual family use.
Powerful political force
As the Green Belt Movement expanded, Maathai found herself increasingly at odds with the Kenyan government. She explained to Amitabh Pal of the Progressive, "I started seeing the linkages between the problems that we were dealing with and the root causes.... I knew that a major culprit of environmental destruction was the government." Maathai became an outspoken advocate for environmental policy reform; she also held seminars to educate citizens that they must hold government officials accountable for managing natural resources. One of the first public confrontations came in 1989 when Maathai openly protested the building of a $200 million, sixty-story skyscraper in Nairobi's Uhuru Park that was slated to be used for government offices. Maathai's campaign was so successful that the building was never constructed.
Green Belt Movement: Women for Change
Since the 2002 elections, the political climate in Kenya took a turn for the better, with government leaders listening more intently to issues affecting women, and in turn allowing women to have more participation in policy decisions. Given this new climate, the Green Belt Movement established a program in 2003 called Women for Change (WFC). Sponsored in part by Comic Relief United Kingdom (a group that provides funding for nonprofit organizations through comedy concerts), the goal of the program is to give women, especially young girls, a new sense of empowerment through education.
In 2003 the president of Kenya, Mwai Kibaki (1931–), declared an official "War on HIV/AIDS" and, in response, WFC instituted training sessions on sexual and reproductive health to teach young women how to protect themselves from becoming infected with the HIV virus and how to avoid early pregnancy. Other WFC initiatives include providing scholarships and tuition assistance to young girls who excel academically, and training women to gain income-generating skills, such as bee keeping.
Now that women are making inroads on the political front in Kenya, WFC hopes to tackle some long-ingrained cultural problems. One way to do that is through the creation of a center for abused women and children. In Kenya women have historically been treated as property by their husbands, and no laws existed to protect women who were mistreated by their spouses. The purpose of the center is to offer safety and shelter to women and children. More importantly it will be an education center for both men and women to break the cycle of abuse.
Maathai soon began speaking out against the general corruption that ran wild throughout the administration of then-president Daniel arap Moi (1924–). Moi took office in 1978 and since then had ruled with a strong arm, imprisoning and sometimes torturing anyone suspected of opposing his authority. In 1991 Maathai formalized her political activism by cofounding the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy. As she explained to Michelle Martin, "I started out planting trees and found myself in the forefront of fighting for the restoration of democracy in my country." As a result Maathai became a particular target of Moi's terrorist tactics. For example, in 1992, while participating in a hunger strike with mothers who were protesting the imprisonment of their sons—men who were pro-democracy activists—Maathai was brutally beaten by police.
Throughout the 1990s Maathai was arrested, imprisoned, and intimidated time and again for speaking out against the Moi administration. She remained undaunted, however, and even made several attempts to run for public office. In 1992 Maathai was approached to run for the presidency, but declined. In 1997 she agreed to run both for the presidency under the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK) and for a seat in the National Assembly. The National Assembly is the ruling body in Kenya (similar to the U. S. Congress) and consists of 210 members who are elected to five-year terms. Prior to the election the LPK withdrew their support of Maathai because of political differences—the party felt she would focus solely on environmental issues. Maathai also lost her bid for a seat in the National Assembly, coming in third.
Because of constitutional restrictions, Moi was now allowed run for another presidential term in the December 2002 elections. Therefore, in the first free and democratic elections held in nearly twenty-five years, Kenyan citizens voted in a new administration, with Mwai Kibaki (1931–) serving as president. During the same elections Maathai won a seat in the National Assembly, taking 98 percent of the vote. According to Mother Earth News, "Women danced in the streets of Nairobi for joy." Just a few weeks after Kibaki took over the presidency, he appointed Maathai Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.
Proponent of peace
Since taking office, Maathai has worked to enact laws to protect not only the environment but also women's rights and human rights. In 2005 she was integral in helping to shape Kenya's new Bill of Rights; she also represented Kenya at the 2005 United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, an international body of representatives convened to promote the rights of women worldwide. In addition, Maathai continued in her role as an internationally recognized environmentalist. By late 2005, through the Pan-African Green Belt Network, over fifteen African countries had become involved with the Green Belt Movement. The movement also spread beyond the African borders to the United States, where representatives work through the Friends of the Greenbelt Movement North America. In 2005 a primary goal of Maathai was to extend the resources of the Green Belt Movement to help other areas of the world, such as the Republic of Haiti, which has also been ravaged by deforestation.
For her lifelong dedication to environmental and human rights Maathai has received numerous awards, including the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Right Livelihood Award, and the United Nation's Africa Prize for Leadership. In 2004 Maathai was honored with the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, named after Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel (1833–1896). The award is given annually by the Nobel Committee to individuals or organizations that work to promote peace, resolve conflict, or uphold human rights.
Traditionally, however, past Nobel winners tended to be people who worked for peace during times of war. When Maathai was chosen as the recipient she became the very first environmentalist to be recognized, and many wondered whether a "tree planter" deserved such an honor. Authors Anne and Frances Moore posed the question in Mother Earth News :"Why honor environmental activism in an era when war, terrorism and nuclear proliferation are even more urgent problems?" Nobel Committee chair Ole Danbolt Mjos offered a response via a quote in the Progressive :"This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has evidently broadened its definition of peace still further. Environmental protection has become yet another path to peace."
In her acceptance speech, which was quoted in the Progressive, Maathai also acknowledged being the first black woman to be honored with the Nobel: "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." She went on to add, "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." Following her win Maathai traveled around the world speaking to groups who were charmed by her dazzling smile and classy-but-friendly attitude. According to Judith Stone of O Magazine she is a "notoriously terrific hugger." And during Stone's interview with the famous environmentalist, she got a glimpse into Maathai's dedicated personality. "People often ask me what drives me," Maathai revealed. "Perhaps the more difficult question would be: What would it take to stop me?"
For More Information
Maathai, Wangari. The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. New York: Lantern Books, 2003.
Lappe, Anna Moore, and Frances Moore Lappe. "The Genius of Wangari Maathai." Mother Earth News (April–May 2005): pp. 20–22.
Robinson, Simon. "Wangari Maathai: Why Green Matters." Time (April 18, 2005): p. 98.
"Wangari Maathai: First Black Woman to Win the Nobel Peace Prize." Ebony (March 2005): p. 22–24.
Friends of the Green Belt Movement North America. http://www.gbmna.org/ (accessed on August 23, 2005).
The Greenbelt Movement. www.greenbeltmovement.org (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Martin, Michelle. "Kenyan Nobel Winner Finds Lessons in Creation." Catholic New World (July 17, 2005). http://www.catholicnewworld.com/cnw/issue/3_071705.html (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Pal, Amitabh. "Interview with Wangari Maathai." The Progressive (May 1, 2005). http://www.gbmna.org/a.php?id=109 (accessed on August 23, 2005).
Stone, Judith. "Force of Nature." O Magazine (May 12, 2005). http://www.gbmna.org/a.php?id=114 (accessed on August 23, 2005).