Wangari’s legacy of being unbowed in an effort to save the environment and roll back the devastating adverse effects of climate change is yet unmatched. We celebrate her breakthrough as the first African woman to receive a Nobel Peace Prize and how that resonates with the girls of a rising generation, fueling them forward.
As a writer, politician, human rights activist, and world-renowned environmental conservationist from Kenya, Wangari Maathai through her books, movements, and institutions fought for the rights of women and greatly advocated the importance of tree planting. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a conservation movement that has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya at a time when she was on the frontline campaigning for equal benefits for women working.
Born from the most populous ethnic group in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, Kenya on 1 April 1940, Maathai was later raised on a farm near the town of Nakuru. She returned to the village to school, and at the age of 8, she started primary school joining her siblings. When she got to 11, she moved to a Catholic mission boarding school, St. Cecilia Intermediate Primary School. Though Maathai started school not very early, she topped her class and graduated to high school which was also Catholic-owned. She was influenced by Catholicism and subscribed to the faith.
When colonialism in East Africa was dropping to its knees, Kenya politician, Tom Mboya initiated ways for young exceptional students to take advantage of Western education. In September 1960, John F Kennedy who was a US senator then, through Joseph P Kennedy Jr. Foundation financially pioneered the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa which assisted over 300 outstanding students including Maathai to the US.
The journey to expand her knowledge bank began. Through scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College currently referred to as Benedictine College in Atchison (Kansas), the bright head majored in biology with minors in chemistry and German. She furthered to acquire a Master’s degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh with the support of the Africa-America Institute. At Pittsburgh, she witnessed environmentalists purifying the environment from air pollution. This was an experience that greatly influenced her. She never stopped there. Maathai became the first woman to acquire a Ph.D. from East Africa in 1971 with a doctorate in veterinary anatomy and a later professor.
Beyond the walls of school, Maathai was the chairperson for National Council for Women in Kenya. She stood for women fighting for gender equality while encouraging women to be conservationists by planting trees. It was a response to the economic and social needs of women dwelling in rural regions. Maathai was one who never neglected but appreciated her root.
She was highly recognized for her contributions to society and ventured into politics representing Tetu constituency for 5 years (2002-2007). She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in 2004, and also served as the Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in Kenya’s ninth parliament during that period. She led by example, and in 2005 she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem by the 11 Heads of State in the Congo region. Before her tenure elapsed, with great women like Rigoberta Menchú, Betty Williams, Jody Williams, Mairead Corrigan, and Shirin Ebadi; she founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative.
Wangari Maathai works were novel and cannot be laid in a single article. She died from ovarian cancer on 25 September 2011 at age 71. Memorial ceremonies were held in Kenya, San Francisco, London, and New York.
By Elijah Christopher,