Wangari Maathai

By in Environmental Leaders, Leadership

Wangari Maathai

“Trees are living symbols of peace and hope.  A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky.  It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded, and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance.  It is a reminder to all of us who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from.” -Wangari Maathai

By Veronica Rao

Wangari Maathai challenged the social norms of Kenya, being a woman in a leadership position, while she peacefully fought to better the economic and environmental state of the country. She was born in Kenya in on April 1st, 1940. As she explains it, “I was born as an old world was passing away.” At this time Africa was being colonized by European countries. A lot of the settlers were tradesmen and businessmen looking to make a profit off of Africa’s abundance of natural resources. Africa faded from a land of bounty and wealth to a land of poverty and hunger.

Wangari Maathai attended college in the United States on scholarship, attending both Mount Saint Scholastica College and the University of Pittsburgh. At these two colleges she obtained her degree in Biological Sciences and a Master of Science degree. Although her studies in the United States got her education started it was in Germany at the University of Nairobi where Maathai received her doctorate in 1971. Wangari Maathai was the first woman ever from Central Africa to receive a doctorate.

In 1977, Wangari Maathai was elected into the committee of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Shortly after she had been elected she started an organization called the Green Belt Movement (GBM). The Green Belt Movement started change in Kenya. The movement called for women, to plant seeds that would grow into trees. This simple task would provide the women and anyone else a way to inexpensively meet many of their needs including wood, fuel, building and fencing material, and even income. The project also helped the environment, because the trees helped in two ways. The roots helped the soil from eroding and the shade helped stop watersheds from evaporating. The Green Belt Movement was a success, and still exists today. The organization is responsible for the planting of over 51 million trees and over 100,000 jobs.

This inspiring movement is not all Wangari Maathai is responsible for. In 1991 Maathai co- founded the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD). The idea of a multi- party democracy took root and by December of 1991 and the President of Kenya folded under the pressure of the people. The first election took place in 1993 and was a failure due because it was rigged. The government slowly became the multi- party democracy that people wanted it to be, and in 2003 Maathai was elected into parliament and also served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004 Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for all of her hard work, dedication, and courage in her endeavors with the GBM and in peacefully fighting the government for change. Maathai remained active in the GBM and spent her time in parliament trying to legally better Kenya’s economic and environmental issues. She died in 2011 of Ovarian Cancer, but hopefully her motivating life story will live on forever.

Araeen, Rasheed. 2009. “Wangari Maathai: Africa’s Gift to the World.” Third Text 23, no. 5: 675-678; Green Belt Movement (2003). Special Annual Report 2003. Green Belt Movement; Green Belt Movement (2012). Our History. Green Belt Movement.; Maathai, Wangari (2004). The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the approach and the experience. New York: Lantern Books; Maathai, Wangari. (2006) Unbowed: A Memoir. Random House, Inc.; Michaelson, Marc. (1994). Wangari Maathai and Kenya’s Green Belt Movement: Exploring the Evolution and Potentialities of Consensus Movement Mobilization.Social Problems, Vol. 41. Pgs 540-561