Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was a Kenyan environmentalist, feminist, advocate of democracy and of human rights.
Born in rural Kenya while it was still a colony of Britain, Wangari was, unusually for a girl, educated from a young age. Throughout school she demonstrated her intelligence, and in 1960 earned a scholarship to study in the USA. She went on to earn a degree in Kansas, a masters degree in Pittsburgh, and in 1971 she attained her PHD in Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.
It was while she was serving on the National Council of Women of Kenya, in 1976, that she first proposed her idea of mass tree planting that would later earn her a Nobel prize as the Green Belt Movement.
The next year she began implementing her idea. In order to combat the severe deforestation of Kenya, she would pay poverty stricken women to plant trees, thus providing them with an income whilst reforesting the nation.
“Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted, so we decided to solve both problems together.”
The movement was responsible for the planting of 30,000,000 trees and providing women with resources and opportunities.
Wangari also challenged the government about the treatment of the land that led to the deforestation; she was outspoken in her criticisms of the dictator Daniel arap Mo, and was consequently beaten and arrested on multiple occasions. This happened even after his regime ended; in 2008 she was hit with tear gas while protesting. Still, she did not give up, and began to broaden her criticisms to other issues including human rights, as she realised that the issues they were facing were connected, and the damage to the environment was the result of these issues, in particular the government’s failures.
Finally, in 2002, Mo’s regime fell, and Wangari became a member of parliament the same year. This was followed two years later when she was bestowed with the honour of the Nobel Peace Prize for ‘her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.’
Wangari was described as a force of nature, who was able to wear so many different hats and inspired admiration from the most poverty stricken women in rural Kenya, to the world leaders at the UN, to the intellects of Nairobi and around the world.
Wangari was incredibly brave, never shying away from using her voice as a force for change. Despite facing violence, jail and even divorce due to her views, Wangari never lost sight of her goals: To make her home country a fairer, better place. What an inspiration!
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”
The Green Belt Movement website is here.
Her wonderfully written obituary from the New York Times is here.