Wangari (Muta) Maathai was born in 1940 in Kenya. In her Kikuyu culture women were storytellers and all humans had right to shelter and space. Like her grandmother-namesake she was known to be industrious and organized.
By the time she was born the native drink–millet porridge–had been replaced by the tea of the British colonialists. Her father was a mechanic and driver for a British settler and was tall and strong. He didn’t need a jack to change a tire on a car. The family cultivated a small farm a with soil so lush you could “almost feel the life it had.” At the urging of her brother, she was sent to a Catholic school where she was first in her class. She enjoyed her schooling but in retrospect recognized that it served to undermine her own culture.
In 1960 she was given a scholarship to attend Benedictine College in the United States. This was to be paid for by the Kenyan government but funds were withdrawn at the last minute and the small college paid her tuition. She found American life and the critical thinking required at the liberal arts college liberating. She majored in biology and continued her studies at the University of Pittsburg. Here she witnessed citizens working to undo decades of environmental damage to their city. When she returned to Kenya in 1965, it had been freed of colonial rule.
She earned her PhD from the University of Nairobi in 1971 and became their first female professor. She married Mwangi Mathai and they had three children. She changed her last name to Maathai following their divorce in 1979 since she was well-known but unable to keep her husband’s name.
She was collecting cattle ticks for a biological study when she noticed rampant soil erosion due to livestock farming and the replacement of native trees—including the sacred fig–with timber species. She learned that Kenyan children had become malnourished as farms converted to growing coffee and tea. Women did not even have the firewood to cook healthy meals! Her solution: plant trees. She joined with the National Council of Women of Kenya and enlisted local women, many illiterate, to plant native trees and save their once lush country from encroaching desertification. This grew into the Green Belt Movement which has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya, spread to over thirty countries, and taken a stand against land grabbing and political corruption. Maathai became an advocate for gender equality and women’s health.
There’s a reason why her memoir is titled Unbowed. When she was forty-one she found herself divorced with no job, no home, and no money. She was blamed for her divorce and held up as an example of why women shouldn’t be educated. And yet, she continued to plant trees. She was jailed several times for her advocacy and hospitalized following attack during a tree planting protest. She ran for Parliament and was defeated before being elected. She didn’t give up.
Wangari received numerous awards including an honorary degree from Yale, France’s Legion d’Honneur, and the Goldman Environmental Prize. In 2004 she received the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition that ecology and peace intersect –the first African woman and the first environmentalist to gain this honor. We lost this inspiring Shero in 2011 but her vision lives on through her “canopy of hope”—the trees planted to preserve our earth.
Written for Sheroes of History by Catherine Haustein. Catherine is the author of Natural Attraction and Cleaner, Greener Laboratories for Analytical Chemistry. She blogs at catherinehaustein.com
Find out more…
Read about Wangari’s life in her own words in Unbowed: My Autobiography
The film Taking Root is all about Wangari and her life’s work planting trees in Kenya. Find out more and see how you can watch it here.
The Green Belt Movement continues to build on Wangari Maathai’s legacy today. Find out more about their work and how you can support it on their website.