Dr. Wangari Maathai: Nobel Laureate African Environmentalist


Photo: Nobel Laureate Dr. Wangari Maathai (4/1/1940 - 9/25/2011) 
Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai was the first African woman and environmentalist bestowed with the Nobel Peace Prize. Dr. Maathai mobilized women to plant more than 40 million trees in Africa. She championed environmental sustainability as a direct link to human sustainability and a tool against poverty. She was described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu as a leading voice in Africa.

"Professor Maathai introduced the idea of women planting trees in Kenya to reduce poverty and conserve the environment," said Archbishop Tutu. Founder of the Green Belt Movement

"[Maathai] will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, womens' rights, and democracy," stated former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Atta Annan after her death in September 2011. "Her contribution to all these causes will forever be celebrated and honored."

Early Life in Kenya in East Africa

On April 1, 1940, Wangari Muta was born to Muta Njugi, her father, and Wanjiru Kibicho, her mother -- a  Kikuyu farming family from the Nyeri District of Kenya, in the village of Ihithe. She is noted as saying that her parents gave her an early respect for the soil and its bounty. Her first formal studies in Kenya began at the age of eight at the Ihithe Primary School and later at St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School in Nyeri and Loreto High School Limuru.

In 1959, at the end of British rule in East Africa, a young Wangari left Kenya to study in the United States of America at Benedictine College (then Mount St. Scholastica College) in the state of Kansas. She earned a Bachelors of Science in 1964 and would go on to earn a Master's of Science in Biological Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. She would continue of science and environmental studies at university in Germany.

In 1966, Maathai returned to Kenya where she was appointed research assistant to a zoology professor at University College of Nairobi and opened a family-run general store in Nairobi. In Kenya, she would marry Mwangi Mathai and have three children: Bangari Maathai, Sangari Maathai and Mangari Maathai. After an embattled divorce from Mathai, she succeeded in retaining the family name by adding an "a": Maathai.

In 1971, Maathai became the first Eastern African woman to earn a Ph.D. when she was awarded a Doctorate of Anatomy. She became a senior lecturer, associate professor and chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. It was at the university that Wangari Maathai began campaigning for equal benefits for women working at the university.

Green Belt Movement

To honor Nairobi's community leaders, the first "Green Belt" tree was planted in the city's Kamukunji park in 1977. Maathai encouraged Kenyan women to plant native tree nurseries throughout Kenya, agreeing to pay them stipends for each seedling found in a native forest and planted elsewhere.

Maathai became an active environmentalist, voice for women and for African self-sufficiency. In 2009, she authored the book "The Challenge for Africa." In the epilogue to her book, "Unbound: A Memoir", Dr. Maathai writes:
Trees have been an essential part of my life and have provided me with many lessons. 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. It signifies that no matter how powerful we become in government or how many awards we receive, our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand. 



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