Wangari Maathai – an environmentalist and political activist

Wangari Maathai – April 1, 1940 – September 25, 2011


Wangari Maathai and Charlene

Wangari Maathai was born in a small village called Ihithe in the district of Nyeri in Kenya on the 1st April 1940. Her family were part of the Kikuyu tribe. Wangari attended the local primary school in the village before going to a Catholic boarding school in Nyeri which was instrumental in protecting her during the years of the Mau Mau uprising and it was here that she became fluent in English.  When she finished senior primary she had come first in her class and earned a place in Loreto High School, the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya. She was one of 300 Kenyan students who benefited from a study program through the United States which offered Africans from poor backgrounds who had achieved above average scholastically to study abroad in the US and Germany.  She earned her biology degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.


Wangari became a ‘eco warrior’ very early on in her life as it was not common in those times for girls to pursue a career in education.  On her return to Kenya, Wangari worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi where, despite resistance from her male counterparts she earned a Ph.D, eventually becoming head of the veterinary medicine faculty, a first for a woman at any department at the university.

Through her work in various environmental and civic organisations, Dr Maathai realized that poverty and environmental degradation were intrinsically linked.  She became involved in organizing work for poor people and eventually this became a national grass-roots organization, providing work and improving the environment at the same time.  In 1977 she formally founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental NGO, focusing on planting of trees to combat the major problem of deforestation, erosion, environment conservation whilst at the same time creating ‘jobs’ for women.  She encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to that particular area.  The women were paid a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.  According to the UN, her Green Belt movement has planted more than 30 million trees and has helped nearly 900,000 women while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.

Wangari fought many political battles over the years to uphold her beliefs and values and she was arrested a number of times by the government of the then Kenyan President Daniel Arapaho Moi who labeled the Green Movement “subversive”.  In 1999 she suffered head injuries when attacked while planting trees in the Karura Public Forest in Nairobi, part of a protest against continuing deforestation.  “Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views. “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.”

The establishment of global environmental organizations gave Maathai the openings to bring world attention to environment issues affecting developing countries like Kenya, in particular UNEP, the United Nations Environment Program.  With its headquarters situated in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Wangari Maathai was one of the first people from the developing world adopted into the Unep “family”.  She travelled extensively speaking out against environmental degradation and poverty.

In 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace prize for her contribution towards sustainable development, democracy and peace.  In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”


Dr. Maathai received many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, as well as numerous awards, including the French Legion of Honor and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. She was the author of several books, including “Unbowed: A Memoir,” published in 2006.


Environment Africa’s CEO, Charlene Hewat had the privilege of meeting Dr Maathai during a Climate Change meeting in Denmark.  Charlene has also been involved in planting trees in her home country Zimbabwe and launched a campaign with Nelson Mandela ‘Madiba’ to plant one million trees in a year which was achieved.


Sadly, Wangari lost her final battle against cancer and died on 25th September 2011.  Pamberi Wangari, you shall always be our hero for the African Environment.

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