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Maathai, Wangari 1940–

Wangari Maathai 1940

Environmental activist

Joined the Fight For Womens Rights

Founded Green Belt

Uphill Battle Against Government

Fought Government By Joining It


Dr. Wangari Muta Maathaian activist, feminist, mother, environmentalist, and member of the Kenyan parliamentwas 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 Magazine she 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 weve 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 Womens 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. Cecilias 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, 198187; Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, cochair, 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, Williams 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 Nations 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. Maathais quest for advanced studies continued as she found herself juggling her time as a mother, student, research assistant, and a womens 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 Nations noted 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, Maathais strong advocacy for womens 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, Matthais 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

Maathais 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 lets 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 womens leadership development training.

The Green Belt Movements 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 Tanzania, Uganda, 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 movements 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 organizations 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 dont know what they are doing. They are so blinded by greed they genuinely believe they should control all resources. They dont understand why we are willing to be abused, willing to put ourselves in danger.

In 1988, Matthai infuriated Arap Moithen the president of Kenyawhen 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 Kenyas 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 cant 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, Maathais 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 Movements 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 womens 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 movements specifications. The seedlings are then sold to the movement, and the income generated enables the women to pay for their childrens 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 populationschool children, women, farmers, and the physically challengedcan 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 womens 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 governments deliberate ploy to gain support in the coming elections. Reuters reported that she commented, Its 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.

Matthais 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 States include 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 womens 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 Project, (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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Maathai, Wangari

Wangari Maathai

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.

"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."

Maathai attended Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she was 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.

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.

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.

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.

Web Sites

Friends of the Green Belt Movement North America. (accessed on August 23, 2005).

The Greenbelt (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Martin, Michelle. "Kenyan Nobel Winner Finds Lessons in Creation." Catholic New World (July 17, 2005). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Pal, Amitabh. "Interview with Wangari Maathai." The Progressive (May 1, 2005). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

Stone, Judith. "Force of Nature." O Magazine (May 12, 2005). (accessed on August 23, 2005).

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Wangari Muta Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai

A visionary environmentalist, Wangari Maathai (born 1940) created a successful reforestation program that began in Kenya and was adopted in other African nations and the United States. Maathai was recognized world-wide for her achievements, although she was denounced as a traitor and a rebel in her home country.

Wangari Maathai is perhaps best known for creating the Green Belt Movement of Kenya, a program recognized all over the world for combining community development and reforestation to combat environmental and poverty issues. Maathai excelled at mobilizing people for a very simple goal-reforestation-which also impacted poverty and community development in Kenya. Maathai believed that people needed to help with environmental issues and should not rely upon the government. Maathai clashed with the Kenyan government, often at risk to her own life, when she opposed destructive governmental initiatives and when she forayed into politics personally.

Turmoil Early On

Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940. Attending college in the United States, she went on to earn a B.S. from Mount St. Scholastica University, in Kansas and a M.S. from University of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania. She then earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in Kenya to earn a Ph.D. and at age 38, she held the first female professorship (in Animal Science) at the University of Nairobi. She credited her education with giving her the ability to see the difference between right and wrong, and with giving her the impetus to be strong.

Maathai's life was not without turmoil and hurdles, which she described as God-given. She married a politician who unknowingly provided the basis for her future environmental activities when he ran for office in 1974 and promised to plant trees in a poor area of the district he represented. Maathai's husband abandoned her and their three children later, filing and receiving a divorce on the grounds that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control." Maathai maintained that it was particularly important for African women to know that they could be strong, and to liberate themselves from fear and silence.

Visionary Reforestation Program

In 1977 Maathai left her professor position at the University of Nairobi and founded the Green Belt Movement on World Environment Day by planting 9 trees in her backyard. The Movement grew into a program run by women with the goal of reforesting Africa and preventing the poverty that deforestation caused. Deforestation was a significant environmental issue in Africa and was resulting in the encroachment of desert where forests had stood. According to the United Nations in 1989, only 9 trees were replanted in Africa for every 100 trees that were cut down. Not only did deforestation cause environmental problems such as soil runoff and subsequent water pollution, but lack of trees near villages meant that villagers had to walk great distances for firewood. Village livestock also suffered from not having vegetation to graze on.

Women in the Kenyan villages were the people who first implemented Maathai's Green Belt Movement. "Women, " Maathai explained, "are responsible for their children, they cannot sit back, waste time and see them starve." The program was carried out with the women establishing nurseries in their villages, and persuading farmers to plant the seedlings. The movement paid the women for each tree planted that lived past three months. Under Maathai's direction in its first 15 years, the program employed more than 50, 000 women and planted more than 10 million trees. Other African nations adopted similar programs based on the Green Belt Movement model. Additionally, the government stepped up its tree planting efforts by twenty times.

More Than Planting Trees

The Greenbelt Movement that Maathai conceived was not limited solely to tree planting. The program worked in concert with the National Council of Women of Kenya to provide such services to Kenyan women and villages including: family planning, nutrition using traditional foods, and leadership skills to improve the status of the women. By 1997 the Movement had resulted in the planting of 15 million trees, had spread to 30 African countries as well as the United States, and had provided income for 80, 000 people.

Maathai had strong beliefs about how she carried out environmental activism. She warned that educated women should avoid becoming an elite, and instead, should do work for the planet. Nobody could afford to divorce themselves from the earth, she believed, because all human had to eat and depend on the soil. Activism, she felt, was most effective when done in groups rather than alone. She credited her success with the Green Belt Movement to keeping the goal simple. The program provided a ready answer for those who asked, "What can I do?" Planting trees, in this case, was the simple solution.

Clashes with Government

Maathai continued to oppose modernization that collided with her environmental beliefs; this often put her at odds with government. She admitted that "You cannot fight for the environment without eventually getting into conflict with politicians." As an example, she was thrown out of her state office in 1989 when she opposed the construction of a 62 story skyscraper in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Maathai claimed that the building, which was to house government offices and a 24 hour TV station, would cost 200 million dollars. The money, she claimed, could be better spent addressing serious poverty, hunger and education needs in the country. Her opposition succeeded in frightening off foreign investors and they withdrew their support; the skyscraper was never built. In Nairobi, Maathai also opposed the deforestation of 50 acres of land outside the city limits to be used for growing roses for export.

Politics and environmental activism continued to interweave in Maathai's life even before she attempted to run for office. She helped found the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, a group that was opposed to the leadership of then-president Daniel arap Moi. She advocated for the release of political prisoners and led a hunger strike on 1992 with the mothers of these prisoners. During one of these protests, she was beaten by police until unconscious.

In January 1992 she was arrested for her political protest activities when more than 100 police raided her Nairobi residence. Later in 1992, she was charged with spreading rumors that then-president Moi planned to turn government power over to the military in order to prevent multi-party elections. While Maathai awaited trial for the latter charge, she was refused medical treatment in jail; even though she was experiencing difficulties due to a history of heart problems and arthritis.

Political Campaigns

In 1992 Maathai was approached to run for the Presidency by a cross section of the Kenyan population. She declined, preferring to try and unite the fractured opposition parties against President Moi. Her efforts failed and Moi was again elected.

In 1997 Maathai responded to pressure from supporters and friends and announced that she was running not only for a Parliament seat, but for the Presidency under the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK) in an attempt to defeat President Moi. She got a late start in the process and did not announce her intentions until a month before the election. Maathai explained that she was "finding it increasingly difficult to turn away those who approach me stating that the time has come for me to practice what I preach in the Green Belt Movement … honesty, vision, courage, commitment and genuine concern for all people." She denounced the current corruption in the government, and urged that the time had come to restore Kenyan people's dignity, self respect, and human rights. The government that she proposed was a people centered operation, or an "enabling political environment to facilitate development." Central to her vision was a Kenyan society where people acknowledged their cultural and spiritual background as they participated in government.

However, Maathai released no party manifesto prior to the election, claiming that the Green Belt Movement would provide the direction for her platform. At least one political analyst of the Africa News Service, saw this as troubling, claiming that Maathai might focus only on environmental issues and that the LPK already had a manifesto. Maathai countered such fears by claiming that her leadership would focus not only on the environment (which was, in her mind, tied to other issues like hunger), but on infrastructure issues, poverty, disease, and the empowerment of the oppressed.

Maathai found fault with the current political system which required candidates to acquire extremely large amounts of money in order to carry out campaigns. This situation, she claimed, made it difficult for many visionary hopefuls like herself to even have a chance at making a difference in Kenya. A few days prior to the December 1997 election, the LPK leaders withdrew Maathai's candidacy without notifying her. Her bid for a Parliament seat was also defeated in the election; she came in third. Moi again emerged as the presidential victor. She continued to be admired world-wide, however, for her visionary work in the environmental arena.

Further Reading

Africa News Service, October 27, 1997; January 5, 1998.

E Magazine, January 11, 1997.

Inter Press Service English News Wire, December 10, 1997.

Time, April 23, 1990; April 29, 1991; April 27, 1992.

Women in Action, January 1, 1992.

"Africa Prize Laureates, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, " The Hunger Project, (April 13, 1998).

"Awareness Raising; Wangari Maathai Comes From Kenya, " BBC World Service, (April 13, 1998).

"Wangari Maathai Biography, " April 13, 1998).

"Women's One World, Women Who Dare: Celebrating Women's Her-story, " World Citizen News, (February/March 1997) (April 13, 1998).

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Maathai, Wangari Muta

Wangari Muta Maathai (wän-gä´rē mātī´), 1940–2011, Kenyan environmental activist; studied Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine) College (B.S., 1964), Univ. of Pittsburgh (M.S., 1966), Univ. of Nairobi (Ph.D., 1971). The first woman in E Africa to earn a doctorate, she taught at her Nairobi alma mater, becoming head of its veterinary anatomy department in 1977. While active (1976–87) in the National Council of Women of Kenya, she initiated (1977) the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots group that encourages ordinary Kenyan women to plant trees to counter erosion, deforestation, and other environmental ills, to provide sustainable fuel, and to empower themselves. (Tens of millions of trees have been planted.) The group also sponsors initiatives on women's rights, education, and other issues. Maathai, who strongly opposed Kenya's President Moi, also advocated the cancellation of African foreign debt. In 2002 she was elected to Kenya's national assembly and was named assistant environmental minister in 2003, but later left government. She became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

See her The Green Belt Movement (1985, rev. ed. 2003), The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment (2002), and Unbowed (2006).

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