Wangari Maathai

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Biographical information

Maathai was a Kenyan political and environmental activist.

First name: 
Wangari
Last name: 
Maathai
Date of birth: 
1 April 1940
Location of birth: 
Nyeri, Kenya

Wangari Muta Maathai Anchor was a prominent Kenyan environmental and political activist. Maathai is internationally renowned for her unrelenting efforts in advocating democracy, environmental conservation and human rights.[i] She was born in Nyeri, part of the rural region of Kenya on the 1st of April 1940. Maathai was of Kikuyu ethnicity. In 1964, Maathai graduated with a Bachelors degree in Biological Science from Mount Saint Scholastic College, also known as the Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kansas in the United States of America.[ii] She went on to attain a Master of Science degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966.[iii] Eventually pursuing her doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before earning a PhD from the University of Nairobi in 1971, where Maathai lectured veterinary anatomy.[iv] Wangari Maathai was the first women graduate with a PhD in East and Central Africa.[v] Maathai chaired the Department of Veterinary Anatomy, and held the position of associate professor in 1976 and 1977.[vi]

Maathai shared a long and prosperous relationship with the National Council of Women of Kenya, between the years 1976 and 1987, and even went on to chair the Council from the years 1981 till 1987.[vii] During her leadership years on the National Council of Women of Kenya, Maathai pioneered an initiative which involved community based tree planting.[viii] Throughout her representation on the National Council of Women she constantly developed her tree planting initiative into a broad-based grassroots organisation centred on women groups conserving the environment and improving women’s quality of life.[ix] Ultimately this initiative progressed into the Green Belt Movement (GBM).[x] The Green Belt Movement pays particular attention to reducing poverty and encouraging environmental conservation by means of planting trees.[xi] By means of the Green Belt Movement Maathai supported women in planting over 20 million trees on local farms, schools and church compounds.[xii]

In 1983, Maathai received the Women of the Year Award.[xiii] She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1984 and the Better World Society Award in 1986.[xiv] The Green Belt Movement launched a Pan African Green Belt Network in 1986, which introduced over 40 individuals of various African states to the Movement’s ideals.[xv] Maathai established a campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition in late 1998, which she played a significant role in co-chairing its Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign.[xvi] The main purpose of the Campaign necessitates the cancellation of the unpaid backlog debts of the poor African states before reaching 2000.[xvii] The Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign discourages land grabbing and acquisitive allocation of forest land.[xviii] In 2001, Maathai received the Juliet Hollister Award and the Excellence Award from the Kenyan Community Abroad.[xix] Maathai received the Outstanding Vision and Commitment Award in the year 2002.[xx] In 2003, Maathai wrote The Green Belt Movement: sharing the approach and the experience.[xxi] The book provided a detailed account of the manner in which the Green Belt Movement developed from one woman’s idea into a entire network of thousands of men and women who have participated in the planting of millions of trees across Kenya.[xxii] The book reveals the key challenges faced by Maathai and the Green Belt Movement, as a grassroots environmental non-governmental organisation.[xxiii]  In the very same year Maathai received the World Association of Non-Government Organisations (WANGO) Environment Award.[xxiv] Over the years Wangari Maathai received numerous recognition for her work, in 2004 she received the Sophie Prize; Petra Kelly Prize for Environment; the Conservation Scientist Award; and J. Sterling Morton Award.[xxv]

Wangari Maathai was elected as the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council in March 2005.[xxvi] Maathai was selected as the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest and Ecosystem in 2005.[xxvii] She was elected by 11 respective presidents to the Congo area, as the region’s Goodwill Ambassador.[xxviii] In 2006, Maathai wrote Unbowed: a memoir.[xxix] The book documented the accounts of a girl with the background of central highlands Kenya, becoming the first woman to receive a PhD in East and Central Africa and going onto becoming a university’s head of department in Kenya. The book details Maathai’s numerous confrontations with the repressive Kenyan government and the manner by which she believed that planting trees could empower local communities.[xxx] The previous president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, regarded Maathai as a problem, and perceived her Green Belt Movement to have been “subversive” during the 1980s.[xxxi] Along with her fellow female Nobel laureates to the likes of Jody Williams, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Mairead Corrigan, Shirin Ebadi and Betty Williams, Maathai initiated the Nobel Women’s Initiative in 2006.[xxxii] Wangari Maathai received numerous honorary degrees from various academic institutions across the world, namely William’s College, Massachusetts in 1990; Hobart & William Smith Colleges, New York in 1994; the University of Norway in 1997; Yale University in 2004;[xxxiii] the University of Pittsburgh in 2006; and finally awards from the French Legion of Honour and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.[xxxiv] Maathai was elected to parliament with 98% of the votes.[xxxv] Shortly thereafter she was appointed as Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in Kenya’s ninth parliament by the president.[xxxvi] Wangari Maathai represented the Tetu electorate in the Kenya parliament between 2002 and 2007.[xxxvii] The Congo Basin Fund appointed Maathai to be its co-chair in 2007.[xxxviii] The fund was developed by the British and Norwegian states, and is concerned with the well being and protection of Congolese forests.[xxxix] In 2008, Maathai was driven out of the Kenyan government, and was struck with tear gas by the Kenya police in the midst of a protest against “the excesses of Kenya’s entrenched political class”.[xl] Maathai’s refusal to be silenced by her repressive government and particularly vocal nature[xli] meant that she was politically sidelined after serving only one term.[xlii]

In 2009, Maathai released The Challenge for Africa, a book provided a detailed analysis of the complex nature of the African continent, as a whole.[xliii] Maathai thoroughly examines the most shocking “bottlenecks to development in Africa” present on individual, national and international platforms, in terms of cultural upheaval, poverty and environmental degradation.[xliv] Furthermore, Maathai goes on to explore what Africans can and desperately need to do for themselves, in terms of Africa responsibility and accountability.[xlv] In December 2009, the United Nations Secretary-General gave Maathai recognition for her unrelenting devotion to the protection of the environment and combating climate change efforts, and gave bestowed upon her the United Nations Messenger of Peace.[xlvi]

The Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group selected Maathai onto its panel in 2010. The Millennium Development Goals Advocacy Group consisted of political leaders, businessmen and political activists who strived to reach the universal Millennium Development Goals.[xlvii] The Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust appointed Maathai as a trustee in 2010.[xlviii] Wangari formulated the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in 2010. The Wanagari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies is concerned with academic research in the case of land use, agriculture, forestry, resource based conflicts and peace studies. [xlix] Also in 2010, Maathai wrote Replenishing the Earth: spiritual values for healing ourselves and the world, which critically proposes that, the key to unlocking self-empowerment and conservation is reasoned behind traditional spiritual values in terms of one’s love for the environment, self betterment, gratitude, respect and a commitment to service.[l] Maathai incorporated various faiths and traditions into her work, this includes her Western Christian education background, the Jewish concept Tikkun Olam, and the Japanese term Mottainai into her work.[li]

Maathai was internationally recognised for her great efforts in promoting democracy, human rights, environmental conservation.[lii] Throughout the years, Maathai served on the boards of several international organisations,[liii] which included the United Nationals Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament, Environment Liaison Center International, World Learning for International Development, Green Cross International, The Jane Goodall Institute, Women and Environment Development Organisation (WCEO), the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work and National Council of Women of Kenya.[liv] Maathai was voiced her opinion on numerous occasions during the United Nations General Assembly’s Earth Summit reviews, several times she would tackle hard hitting topics from the perception of women.[lv] Wangari was notably present on the Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.[lvi]

In many ways, Wangari Maathai exemplifies a true pioneer to not only women, but Africans. With great sadness, Wangari Maathai lost her battle with ovarian cancer[lvii] on the 25 September 2011, leaving three children, and two grandchildren behind, along with an incredible legacy of the power through knowledge and the self- determination of African women.[lviii] According to John Githongo, “Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power” and that “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever”.[lix] Wangari Maathai was one of the most widely respected African women, and made various roles as an environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, firebrand, human rights advocate and spearheading the Green Belt Movement.[lx]

The wellbeing of the community and environment was an important matter of interest for Wangari Maathai. Source: yali.state.gov

Wangari Maathai was awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize to an African woman in 2004. Source: kids.britannica.com

Wangari Maathai upon a visit to the Newlands Forest in Cape Town, South Africa. Source: www.nytimes.com

End Notes

[i] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[ii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[iii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[iv] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[v] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[vi] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[vii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[viii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[ix] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[x] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xi] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xii] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xiii] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xiv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xvi] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xvii] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xviii] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xix] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xx] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxi] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxii] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xxiii] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xxiv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxvi] Wangari Maathai – Kenya 2004, Founding Member [Online]. Available: http://nobelwomensinitiative.org/meet-the-laureates/wangari-maathai/

[xxvii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xxviii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xxix] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxx] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xxxi] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html

[xxxii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xxxiii] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxxiv] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html

[xxxv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxxvi] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[xxxvii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xxxviii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xxxix] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xl] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html

[xli] Wangari Maathai – bio. [Online]. Available: http://www.biography.com/people/wangari-maathai-13704918

[xlii] Rice, X. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel peace prize winner, dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/26/wangari-maathai-nobel-winner-dies

[xliii] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xliv] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xlv] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[xlvi] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xlvii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xlviii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[xlix] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[l] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[li] Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books

[lii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[liii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[liv] Wangari Maathai – Biographical [Online]. Available: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/2004/maathai-bio.html

[lv] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[lvi] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[lvii] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-pea...

[lviii] Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

[lix] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html

[lx] Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html


References:
• Books [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/books
• Gettleman, J. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/27/world/africa/wangari-maathai-nobel-peace-prize-laureate-dies-at-71.html
• Rice, X. 2011. Wangari Maathai, Nobel peace prize winner, dies at 71 [Online]. Available: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/sep/26/wangari-maathai-nobel-winner-dies
• Wangari Maathai [Online]. Available: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/wangari-maathai/biography

Last updated : 23-May-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 18-May-2016

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