“Incredible Black Women You Should Know About” – The Series
Wangarĩ Muta Maathai
“The First African Woman Nobel Peace Prize Winner”
(April 1, 1940 – September 25, 2011)
By DonnaMarie Woodson
This article, from the April 2022 edition of the Charmeck Chronicle, is published here with permission of the author.
In recognition of Earth Day 2022, I’m spotlighting Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist who in 2004 became the first African woman and environmentalist to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”
Her life and dedication to our planet fit well with this year’s Earth Day theme of “Invest in Our Planet.”
- Ms. Maathai’s philosophy was that “We need to act (boldly), innovate (broadly), and implement (equitably). It’s going to take all of us. All in. Businesses, governments, and citizens — everyone accounted for and everyone accountable. A partnership for the planet.” (Earth Day 2022)
- According to Alfred Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” Ms. Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression – nationally and internationally. She has inspired many to fight for democratic rights and encouraged women to better their situation.
– The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Wangari Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, into a farming family in the beautiful central highlands of Kenya. While poor, her family was nevertheless able to live off the land, which, at that time, was still fertile.
As a child, Wangari was fascinated by nature. She played in pristine verdant forests and clear rivers of the highlands and learned about the importance of the land and the trees from her mother.
However, she was growing up against a backdrop of growing environmental degradation, a legacy of British Colonial rule in Kenya which was causing devastating over-cultivation and deforestation. Native Kenyan trees were being removed and replaced with non-native varieties, such as pine and eucalyptus. The image of forests burning in the distance stayed with her and influenced the course of her life profoundly.
As a participant in the Kennedy Airlift program, she studied in the United States, obtaining degrees in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), and a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966). She also pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from Nairobi, where she taught veterinary anatomy.
The Kennedy Airlift was started in 1959 by a 28-year-old Kenyan, Tom Mboya, who sought support for promising Kenyan students to get college and university educations in the United States and Canada. The program brought hundreds of students from East Africa from 1959 to 1963 with the support of many North American educational institutions and foundations, including the African American Students Foundation (AASF).
Many well-known entertainers and activists, including Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, Sidney Poitier and Martin Luther King, Jr. were also very supportive of the Kennedy Airlift program.
The program got its nickname in September 1960 when Sen. John F. Kennedy, in a close presidential campaign, arranged for a $100,000 donation from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation just as the program was running out of funds. The donation covered the airfare for the autumn 1960 group of East African students.
In 1977, “The Green Belt Movement” answered the call of rural Kenyan women. Typically responsible for collecting firewood and growing food, these women were hit hardest by the effects of mass deforestation in Kenya. They saw their source for wood disappearing and their soil drying up and eroding. Maathai’s solution was to teach them to plant and raise new trees. The trees gave needed shade and kept the ground from washing away. As they grew, they would provide firewood, building materials, and fruit to combat malnutrition.
Women organized, started tree nurseries, and exchanged knowledge honed from years of experience working with the land, becoming what Maathai calls “foresters without diplomas.” The trees also provided a rare income-generating opportunity for rural women. Maathai’s new grassroots organization, called “The “Green Belt Movement,” paid the women a small amount for each tree they planted.
The more Maathai investigated solutions to Kenya’s environmental problems, the more she realized that these were only symptoms of a much larger cause. She says it was impossible to disconnect the country’s natural resources from social, economic, and political problems.
“The issues and the problems that people were bringing to the table were symptoms of problems that needed to be addressed from the root. And so I kept going more and more towards the root. I began addressing politics, addressing democracy, conflict issues, rights of the vulnerable, of women and children.”
Maathai’s activism began to make political waves in the country, often putting her and her supporters in danger. Targeted by Kenya’s dictator Daniel Arap Moi, Maathai was regularly arrested and jailed, even forced into temporary exile. During one demonstration, she was beaten unconscious by police.
But the movement had become strong, and the momentum of Greenbelt women’s organizing, led by Maathai, started to turn the political tide. Maathai made it her mission to protect a strip of forest that was being carved up and auctioned off to the government’s supporters. Women, men, students, and the international community rallied behind her in such a force that they helped oust Moi in 2002.
That same year, Maathai ran for Kenya’s parliament, winning her seat with 98 percent of the vote. The following year she was appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. As a parliamentarian, she encouraged military personnel to plant trees around their barracks, telling them to “hold a gun in one hand and a tree in the other.” The soldiers have taken up the environmental cause, seeing the connection between defending territory and defending Kenya’s natural resources.
Maathai’s environmental and human rights activism has grown beyond Kenya’s borders. “The Green Belt Movement” combats environmental devastation and promotes women’s empowerment across Africa and around the globe.
In her 2010 book, “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World,” she discussed the impact of the “Green Belt Movement.”
The group’s civic and environmental seminars stressed “the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilizing to address their local needs. We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, countries, and the world. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change.”
In this book, she explicitly engages with religious traditions, including the indigenous Kikuyu religion and Christianity, mobilizing them as environmental thinking and activism resources.
Maathai authored four books: “The Green Belt Movement”; “Unbowed: A Memoir”; “The Challenge for Africa”; and “Replenishing the Earth.” As well as having been featured in several books, she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of a documentary film, “Taking root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai” (Marlboro Productions, 2008).
Maathai died of complications from ovarian cancer on Sept. 25, 2011, leaving an incredible legacy. She was a charismatic and outspoken African woman who wasn’t afraid to challenge authority at the highest level. Having pursued a career in academia, she then used her education to give Kenyan women a voice and find empowering and straightforward solutions to problems at a grassroots level.
She highlighted the crucial link between sustainable development, democracy, and peace. The tree became a symbol of Kenya’s democratic struggle through her, and her “Green Belt Movement” brought a holistic approach to development.
She’s been described as a beacon of inspiration to African women and people around the world. Africa Environment Day is co-named Wangari Mathaai day in her honor. The causes she fought for – good governance, zero tolerance of corruption, sound resource management, and peace are as crucial today as in Wangari’s lifetime.
International Museum of Women
Wikipedia on Wangari Maathai
CNN, “10 incredible black women you should know about”
Earth Day 2022
Africa Environment Day-Wangari Maathai Day
Wikipedia on Alfred Nobel