Wangari Maathai: A Professor, An Environmentalist and An Inspiration

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Imagine seeing vividly lush forests and fields of green being brought down for the sake of erecting buildings that would take the money from the community’s pockets and put it into the investors and businessmen’s bulking wallets. That would make you feel outrageous wouldn’t it? That’s not the real question though, the question is; will you act on it? Would you have the courage and that drive to stand up and say “NO”? One person was powerful enough to do that, not power gained by status or wealth, but strength derived from pure passion for a good cause. Not only did that person stand up against them, but they went through a long lasting battle to save the environment against greedy ‘money-makers’. And if that was not much of a challenge for you, add to it the fact that, this person was a female living among a community that disregarded and women’s opinions and frowned upon then when they spoke up. The woman who defied those circumstances is the inspirational, Wangari Maathai. Her efforts were internationally acknowledged when she became the first African woman to win a Nobel Prize which she was awarded in 2004.

Wangari Maathai has an impressive background and resume that shows how keen she was at gaining proper education that would qualify her to help people, the environment and improve the quality of life in general. In April 1940, she was born by the full name, Wangari Muta Maathai in the village of Nyeri, Kenya. In 1960, being one of the promising students, Maathai received a scholarship and was selected to continue her studies in the USA. She received her Bachelor of Science degree in 1964 from Mount St. Scholasttica College in Kansas where she majored in biology with minors in chemistry and German. Two years later, she received her master’s degree in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh. Shortly after that, she was appointed the position of research assistant a zoology professor at the University of Nairobi. However, after she arrived at the university to claim her position and start her new job, she found that the position has been given to someone else. She believed that this was because of the gender bias deeply rooted in the culture.

Two months later, she was offered another job as a research assistant in the microanatomy section in the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi. The Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School was still newly established. In 1967, upon the urging of the Professor who offered her the research assistant job, she traveled to Germany in pursuit of a doctorate in veterinary anatomy, which she studied and worked on in both the University if Giessen and the University of Munich in Germany. Four years later, in 1971, Maathai became the first Eastern African woman to receive a Ph.D which she obtained from the University of Nairobi. After six years, she became the chair of the department of veterinary anatomy in the University of Nairobi.

During that time, Maathai was working with the National Council of Women of Kenya, and she developed the idea that village women could and should improve their surrounding environment by planting trees. This was mainly to slow down the processes of deforestation and desertification along with providing a source of fuel. In 1977, she organized the “Green Belt Movement”, which by the early 21 century, had planted around 30 million trees.


wangari maathai - pic1“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking”
“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”

Wangari Maathai

The movement expanded into forming the “Pan African Green Belt Network” in 1986, which aimed to educate world leaders about conservation and environmental improvement. Their message went across and their hard work paid off, as this resulted in the birth of similar initiatives in other African countries including, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

Furthermore, along with her environmental work, Maathai was also an activist for human rights, AIDS prevention and women’s issues. She regularly represented these concerns at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly. In 2002, and with 98 percent of the votes, she was elected to Kenya’s National Assembly. A year later, she was appointed as assistant minister of environment, wildlife and natural resources.

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.” Wangrai Maathai

Maathai have received numerous awards, most notably the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. After receiving it, she was publicly commended on her holistic approach to sustainable development which at the same time embraced human rights and women’s right in particular. This made her become the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win a Nobel Prize.

wangari maathai - pic2“I was not prepared to learn that I had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; I wonder whether anybody ever is. The news hit me like a thunderbolt. How was I supposed to handle it? How did this happen? How did they find such a person as me? I could hardly believe it. It was clear now why the Norwegian ambassador had called. “I am being informed that I have won the Nobel Peace Prize,” I announced to myself and those around me in the car with a smile as I pulled the cell phone away from my ear and reconnected with my fellow passengers. They knew it was not a joke because happiness was written all over my face. But at the same time, tears steamed from my eyes and onto my cheeks as I turned to them. …… But these were tears of great joy at an extraordinary moment!”

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed: A Memoir p.291-292

She has written several publications including her first book, ” The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience” in 1988, in which she details the history of the organization that she started. In 2007, she also published “Unbowed”, her autobiography and in 2009 she published “The Challenge for Africa”, a volume that criticized Africa’s leadership as incompetent and urged Africans to attempt solving their problems without the involvement of the Westerns. Apart from her own publications, she also frequently contributed to international publications such as the “Guardian” and the “Los Angeles Times”.

On the 25th of September 2011, professor Maathai sadly passed away at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. Memorial ceremonies were held honouring her over three continents, in Kenya, and the cities of New York, San Francisco and London.

wangari maathai - pic3“Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.”

Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir


• Motavelli, Jim. (2002). Africa’s green belt: Wangari Maathai’s movement is built on the power of trees. Earth Action Network. Retrieved 10 April 2009.
• “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2004”. Oslo: The Norwegian Nobel Committee. 8 October 2004. Archived from the original on 27 November 2010. Retrieved 21 October 2010.
• Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir, Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0-307-26348-7
• Wangari Maathai, The Greenbelt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, Lantern Books, 2003. ISBN 1-59056-040-X
• Wangari Maathai, The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment, Lantern Books, 2002. ISBN 1-59056-002-7

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Wangari Maathai: A Professor, An Environmentalist and An Inspiration

by Editorial Team time to read: 5 min