Wangari Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, played many roles — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement. In spite of this, her journey was anything but smooth and with the then President Moi against her Uhuru Park protection, she faced harassment, jail, death threats and more…

Uhuru Park and Karura forest would not be in existence today were it not for the efforts of Wangari Maathai. Although “Uhuru” is swahilli for Freedom, there has been more unlawful arrests that have happened in Uhuru Park than any other park in Kenya. Wangari Maathai is one of the hundreds of people arrested at this park. For this reason, and to honour her sacrifice as well as remind future generations of her conservation efforts, Uhuru Park should be renamed to Wangari Maathai Park!

Wangari Maathai's courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers… #IamWangariMaathai Click To Tweet

Table of Contents

Who was Wangari Maathai and What did she do to improve the Environment?

Prof. Wangari Maathai camping at Uhuru Park, February 1991. Her courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers
Prof. Wangari Maathai camping at Uhuru Park, February 1991. Her courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers
Prof. Wangari Maathai camping at Uhuru Park, February 1991. Her courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers. Click To Tweet

Wangari Maathai, born on 1 April 1940, is a Kenyan political activist, Environmentalist and the First African Woman to Win the  Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, First woman in central or eastern Africa to hold a Ph.D., First woman head of a university department in Kenya. Founded in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya and assisted more than 1,000,000 women to plant trees.

Maathai is best known for her efforts to develop the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization that focuses on planting trees to replenish the environment and improve the quality of life. Wangari Maathai’s reasons for planting trees were to save Africa and in particular Kenya from soil erosion and deforestation.

Soil erosion in Africa threatens food and fuel supplies and can contribute to climate change. For over a century, people like Wangari Maathai have tried to combat soil erosion in Africa. However, there has always been opposition from greedy business people and governments. Currently, 40% of soil in Africa is degraded. Degraded soil diminishes food production and leads to soil erosion, which in turn contributes to desertification.

Someone had to take a stand; Kenya’s Wangari Maathai would not take it lying down. Caring deeply about Africa’s environment and its people, Maathai became the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2004) for organizing women in her country to spread peace through tree-planting.

Founded in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya and assisted more than 1,000,000 women to plant trees. Click To Tweet
Limuru Road to be renamed Wangari Maathai Road
Limuru Road to be renamed Wangari Maathai Road

“I will be a hummingbird; I will do the best I can” Professor Wangari Maathai

Be inspired by the life of Wangari Maathai and find out more about the Green Belt Movement’s work. Take part in environmental activities in your own community. Here are some of the ways you can get involved and be a hummingbird.

In this beautifully animated clip from Dirt! The Movie, Wangari Maathai tells an inspiring tale of doing the best you can under seemingly interminable odds. 

I Am Wangari Maathai: Why I Started the Green belt Movement

A 1989 United Nations report noted that only 9 trees were being replanted in Africa for every 100 that were cut down, causing serious problems with deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of animal nutrition. The Green Belt Movement was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the umbrella of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).

The key goal was to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to. The Green Belt Movement also intended to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. She began the movement to reforest Kenya by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees.

A 1989 United Nations report noted that only 9 trees were being replanted in Africa for every 100 that were cut down, causing serious problems with deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of… Click To Tweet
Tool Wangari Maathai Used in Revolutionizing Kenyan Protests
Tool Wangari Maathai Used in Revolutionizing Kenyan Protests

Wangari Maathai’s Biography: A Timeline of Greatness and Opposition:

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya (Africa), in 1940. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy.

The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.

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Professor Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya (1976–1987) and was its chairman (1981–1987). In 1976, while she was serving in the National Council of Women, Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting.

She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organisation, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Kenyan professor Wangari Maathai at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on December 15, 2009 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Credit- Olivier Morin
Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Kenyan professor Wangari Maathai at the Bella Center in Copenhagen on December 15, 2009 at the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Credit- Olivier Morin

Early Life, Upbringing in Nyeri, Family and Education:

Wangari Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. #IAmWangariMaathai Click To Tweet

Prof. Maathai was as comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi’s slums or the muddy hillsides of central Kenya as she was hobnobbing with heads of state. Born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, environmental activist Wangari Maathai grew up in a small village. Her father supported the family working as a tenant farmer. At this time, Kenya was still a British colony. Maathai’s family decided to send her to school, which was uncommon for girls to be educated at this time. She started at a local primary school when she was 8 years old.

An excellent student, Maathai was able to continue her education at the Loreto Girls’ High School. Here, she was educated by nuns before joining Barack Obama’s father as one of 300 Kenyan students given scholarships in the US in 1960.

She won a scholarship in 1960 to go to college in the United States. Maathai attended Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in biology in 1964.

Two years later, she completed a master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Maathai would later draw inspiration by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the United States.

The Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, center, in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2004. Credit Radu Sigheti-Reuters
The Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, center, in Nairobi, Kenya, in 2004. Credit Radu Sigheti-Reuters

In April 1966, after returning to Kenya, Wangari Muta met her future husband, Mwangi Mathai, a politician. The two married in May 1969. She got three children (Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta) and two grandchildren (Ruth Wangari and Elsa Wanjiru)

When she returned to Kenya, Wangari Maathai worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi, and eventually, despite the skepticism and even opposition of the male students and faculty, was able to earn a Ph.D. there. She worked her way up through the academic ranks, becoming head of the veterinary medicine faculty. She made history in 1971, becoming the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree. Maathai joined the university’s faculty and became the first woman to chair a university department in the region in 1976.

She also taught at the university as an associate professor and was chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s. She found a job in a different department, before becoming furious at the sexism that saw her paid less than male academics, and denied pensions and medical insurance for her children.

Prof. 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.

President Moi’s Opposition of Wangari Maathai and her Political Activism:

Wangari Maathai The Woman Moi Could Not Tame Despite His Power
Wangari Maathai The Woman Moi Could Not Tame Despite His Power

Maathai became an icon for women in Africa and elsewhere as she fought against ingrained prejudice and corrupt (usually male) politicians, earning numerous arrests and beatings for her efforts.

Prof. Maathai toured the world, speaking out against environmental degradation and poverty, which she said early on were intimately connected. But she never lost focus on her native Kenya. She was a thorn in the side of Kenya’s previous president, Daniel arap Moi, whose government labeled the Green Belt Movement “subversive”.

Maathai clashed with the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi as she tried to halt forest clearances and land grabs that were used by politicians to enrich themselves and repay political favors. Mrs Maathai was beaten, tear-gassed and whipped as she took to the streets in protests against environmental damage around Nairobi through the 1980s and 1990s.

In and out of Jail for Speaking Out:

In 1991 when Wangari Maathai was first arrested and imprisoned; an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign helped free her. 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. She was arrested numerous times by the government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

Jailed by judge after Divorce for “incompetent” comment:

Wangari Maathai was in and out of jail because of her conservations efforts that President Moi along with other private developers were against. 

However, this time she went to jail for another reason: “Too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control” was Wangari Maathai’s ex-husband’s verdict when he divorced her. And perhaps the judge agreed: When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge by calling him “incompetent”, the Judge promptly threw her in jail for six months, siting contempt of court.

In 1997 Wangari Maathai ran for the presidency of Kenya, though the party withdrew her candidacy a few days before the election without letting her know; she was defeated for a seat in Parliament in the same election.

Wangari Maathai in 2005 in South Africa's Newlands Forest. CreditNic Bothma-European Pressphoto Agency
Wangari Maathai in 2005 in South Africa’s Newlands Forest. CreditNic Bothma-European Pressphoto Agency

Wangari Maathai’s winning fight against President Moi:

In 1998, Wangari Maathai gained worldwide attention when the Kenyan President backed development of a luxury housing project and building began by clearing hundreds of acres of Kenya forest. This incincluded plans to build a 60-storey government building in the middle of Uhuru Park in central Nairobi. In the end her campaign was successful, and she went on to win a seat as an MP, with a whopping 98% of the vote.

She earned Moi’s personal ire when she successfully campaigned against a planned skyscraper to be built on one of Nairobi’s public city parks. Mr. Moi was particularly scornful of her leading the charge against a government plan to build a huge skyscraper in one of central Nairobi’s only parks. The proposal was eventually scrapped, though not long afterward, during a protest, Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious by the police.

Why Kenyan environmental activist Wangarĩ Maathai is a heroine
Why Kenyan environmental activist Wangarĩ Maathai is a heroine

Maathai remained a vocal opponent of the Kenyan government until Moi’s political party lost control in 2002. After several failed attempts, she finally earned a seat in the country’s parliament that same year.

In December 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to Parliament, as Mwai Kibaki defeated Maathai’s long-time political nemesis, Daniel arap Moi, for 24 years the President of Kenya.

Kibaki named Maathai as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January 2003. In 2008, after being pushed out of government, she was hit with tear gas by the police during a protest against the excesses of Kenya’s entrenched political class.

The Green Belt Movement as a form of Decolonization:

Through the Green Belt Movement, Maathai employed adult education as a decolonization process, to foster the revitalization of indigenous culture, selfethnic identity, women’s empowerment, and participatory democracy.

Wangari Maathai- The Troublemaker Who Fought Back With Trees
Wangari Maathai- The Troublemaker Who Fought Back With Trees

The Green Belt Movement was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to access basic needs.

The Green Belt Movement aimed at organizing women in rural Kenya to plant trees, combat deforestation, restore their main sources of fuel for cooking, generate income, and stop soil erosion.

The Green Belt Movement’s call to action relies on its network of over 4000 community groups to deliver its watershed based approach. It is because of this that the Green Belt Movement has a Climate Change Program that aims at strengthening the understanding and capacity of rural communities to take action against climate change.

Wangari Maathai- Environmentalist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Wangari Maathai- Environmentalist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Shortly after beginning this work, Professor Maathai saw that behind the everyday hardships of the poor—environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity—were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values that had previously enabled communities to protect their environment, work together for mutual benefit, and to do both selflessly and honestly.

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First black African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize:

Wangari Maathai of Kenya holding her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2004. CreditPool photo by Bjorn Sigurdson
Wangari Maathai of Kenya holding her Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2004. CreditPool photo by Bjorn Sigurdson

In 2004, she received a remarkable honor. Maathai was given the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace,” according to the Nobel Foundation website.

Maathai said, while accepting the Prize, that picking her for the renowned peace prize “challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: There can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.” She also called for the release of fellow activist Aung San Suu Kyi in her talk.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, ProfProf.. Maathai said the inspiration for her work came from growing up in rural Kenya. She reminisced about a stream running next to her home — a stream that has since dried up — and drinking fresh, clear water. “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”

A day before she was scheduled to receive the Nobel, Prof. Maathai was forced to respond to a report in The East African Standard, a daily newspaper in Nairobi, that she had likened AIDS to a “biological weapon,” telling participants in an AIDS workshop in Nyeri that the disease was “a tool” to control Africans “designed by some evil-minded scientists.”

Wangari Maathai obituary - World news - The Guardian Kenyan winner of the Nobel peace prize for environmental efforts to help the poorest
Wangari Maathai obituary – World news – The Guardian Kenyan winner of the Nobel peace prize for environmental efforts to help the poorest

She said her comments had been taken out of context. “It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people,” she said in a statement released by the Nobel committee. “Such views are wicked and destructive.” 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.”

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize was Marie Curie, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1903 with her husband, Pierre Curie, and Henri Becquerel. Curie is also the only woman to have won multiple Nobel Prizes; in 1911, she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Life for Wangari Maathai after National Politics:

Wangari Maathai - Environmental Activist - Biography
Wangari Maathai – Environmental Activist – Biography

In addition to her conservation work, Maathai was also an advocate for human rightsAIDS prevention, and women’s issues, and she frequently represented these concerns at meetings of the United Nations General Assembly.

In 2006, she helped found the Nobel Women’s Initiative to push for peace, justice and equality around the world. Social justice, democracy and the environment are intrinsic to her campaigns. And she has spoken out about the “new colonisation” that has seen the continent sell off its natural resources to fund infrastructure such as roads. One panellist said: “Her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace is astounding.”

Her first book, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (1988; rev. ed. 2003), detailed the history of the organization. She published an autobiography, Unbowed, in 2007. Another volume, The Challenge for Africa (2009), criticized Africa’s leadership as ineffectual and urged Africans to try to solve their problems without Western assistance. Maathai was a frequent contributor to international publications such as the Los Angeles Times and the Guardian.

Wangari Maathai’s Death:

Wangari Maathai bows out but continues living around us through millions of Trees:

Maathai shared her amazing life story with the world in the 2006 memoir Unbowed. In her final years, she battled ovarian cancer and succumbed to the complications arising from ovarian cancer while receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital.

Prof Wangari Maathai had been treated for ovarian cancer in the past year and that she had been in a hospital for at least a week before she died on September 25, 2011 at around 10pm, at the age of 71 years old. Maathai was survived by her three children: Waweru, Wanjira and Muta.

The news came as a surprise to many in Kenya, where there had been little publicly known of her illness. The 71-year-old is died a hero for her campaigns to stop deforestation around the capital, Nairobi, during the long years of former president Daniel arap Moi’s rule.

Unbowed, One Woman's Story by Wangari Maathai - Word by Word
Unbowed, One Woman’s Story by Wangari Maathai – Word by Word

Wangari Maathai Cremated in Nairobi and ashes buried at peace institute:

The family of the environmentalist and the Government agreed to cremate the body at the Kariokor Crematorium before the remains are interred at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, in accordance with her wish.

A statement issued by the Government and her family stated that the body will be escorted from Lee Funeral Home by members of the Kenya Defence Forces through Uhuru Park’s Freedom Corner, before it is cremated at Kariokor.

Maathai will be remembered for her love for trees, the nobel peace prize for her conservation efforts. She was the first ever female Nobel Laureate from Africa and the first woman in east and central Africa to acquire a doctorate degree.

Condolences for Wangari from Across the World:

The U.N. Environment Programme, with which Maathai worked on a plan to plant a billion trees worldwide, described her as “one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners, internationally recognized for her commitment to democracy, human rights and conservation.” “Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner. “While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction.”

“It is with great sadness that the Green Belt Movement announces the passing of its founder and chair, Prof Wangari Muta Maathai, after a long illness bravely borne,” the organisation said in a statement on its website. “Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her – as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine – or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy and better place for all of us.”

The Nelson Mandela Foundation said, “It was with great sadness that we learned today of the passing of this exceptional environmental activist.” It cited a lecture she gave at the Foundation in 2005 and added, “Prof Maathai has left a lasting legacy in greater awareness and work in protecting our environment and the world.”

Prof. Wangari Maathai camping at Uhuru Park, February 1991. Her courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers
Prof. Wangari Maathai camping at Uhuru Park, February 1991. Her courage helped protect Uhuru Park and Karura Forest from powerful land grabbers

“Wangari Maathai will be remembered as a committed champion of the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights, and democracy,” said former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan. Annan described her winning of the Nobel prize as underscoring, “the important nexus in her work between sustainable development, peace and human security”.

“Africa, particularly African women, have lost a champion, a leader, an activist,” said the continent’s first woman president, Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. “We’re going to miss her. We’re going to miss the work she’s been doing all these years on the environment, working for women’s rights and women’s participation,” she said.

“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.”

Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Wangari Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Kenya’s Prime Minister Raila Odinga, a one-time parliamentary colleague when Maathai briefly served as an assistant minister, said: “”I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing on of this hero of our national struggles. Hers has been heroism easily recognised locally and abroad, one attained in her lifetime and therefore not left to historians to interpret.”

Former Vice President Al Gore, a fellow Peace Prize recipient for his environmental work, said in a statement, “Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service — service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, and indeed all the people of Kenya — and to the world as a whole.”

“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program. He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”

Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies:

President Uhuru Kenyatta views a model for the new Wangari Maathai Institute Complex during the laying of the Foundation stone of the Institute, Upper Kabete, Nairobi County. (PHOTO- COURTESY)
President Uhuru Kenyatta views a model for the new Wangari Maathai Institute Complex during the laying of the Foundation stone of the Institute, Upper Kabete, Nairobi County. (PHOTO- COURTESY)

Before her death, Wangari had conceived the idea of establishing the institute and shared the idea with the university leadership and her friends across the world. The mission behind the institute is to cultivate positive ethics, values and practices towards the environment by training stewards who foster peace, promote holistic sustainable development, and link theory with practice.

The construction of a ‘green’ education facility in the honour of the late Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai has finally commenced in Nairobi. The Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, whose groundbreaking was held on Wednesday, sits on 50 acres at the University of Nairobi’s Upper Kabete Campus. The Green Campus seeks to become an international model center of excellence in environmental governance with relations to a culture of peace and democracy.

Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies landscape
Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies landscape

Speaking during the groundbreaking event, President Uhuru Kenyatta paid tribute to Prof Maathai for her zealous efforts and passion to safe-keep the environment and reaffirmed the government’s commitment to facilitate the project to its finalisation. “Prof Wangari Maathai was the best role model for all Kenyans who want to contribute to the progress of the country and her legacy will live on long after her demise,” he said.

The design of the campus, whose structures are estimated to cost Sh1.4 billion, was done by a South African firm, dhk architects and approved in February 2011, seven months before Prof Maathai’s death.

Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies labs and offices
Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies labs and offices

Dr Snell said the heart of the dhk design is a welcoming structure to be known as “the democratic space” whose tensile canopy roof is supported by tripod ‘tree-like’ columns that evoke tree planting activity and the three legs of the traditional African stool seen by Prof Maathai as representing ‘democratic space and ‘cultures of peace’.

The Wangari Mathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies is a joint project of the government of Kenya and the African Development Bank (AfDB) dubbed “Support to Enhancement of Quality and Relevance in Higher Education Science and Technology.

Construction of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies
Construction of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies

Limuru Road renamed to Wangari Maathai Road:

In 2015, to honour of the late Prof. Wangari Muta Maathai, the County Government of Nairobi renamed the famous Limuru Road, that branches from Thika Road to Ruaka, to Wangari Maathai Road. The then Nairobi Governor Dr. Evans Kidero said this will go a long way in environmental conservation by emulating the deeds of the late Maathai.

“We want to honour the late Mama Mathai for what she did for the country, especially in areas of environment. If it were not for her efforts in environmental conservation, Karura Forest and Uhuru Park would have been a thing of the past,” said Governor Kidero. The Governor’s announcement came days after Karura Ward Member of the County Assembly Kamau Thuo filed a motion to have the road renamed to the Nobel Laureate. 

Early that same year the African Union honoured her by naming the gardens in front of its headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia the Wangari Maathai Gardens as a highlight of work and achievements in environment, human rights and democracy.

An impression of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in Nairobi. PHOTO - FILE
An impression of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in Nairobi. PHOTO – FILE

The four Books Written by Wangari Maathai:

Wangari Maathai authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. As well as having been featured in a number of books, she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of a documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (Marlboro Productions, 2008). Note: The Green Belt Movement is a member of Amazon.com’s Associates program. If you click through from this website and purchase any item from Amazon, a percentage of the sale is donated to the Green Belt Movement.

  • The Green Belt Movement written by Wangari Maathai
  • Unbowed: A Memoir written by Wangari Maathai
  • The Challenge for Africa written by Wangari Maathai
  • Replenishing the Earth written by Wangari Maathai

The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience:

Wangari Maathai Books - The Green Belt Movement- Sharing the Approach and the Experience (New York- Lantern Books, 2003)
The Green Belt Movement- Sharing the Approach and the Experience (New York- Lantern Books, 2003)

The Green Belt Movement tells the story of how an organisation grew from one woman’s idea to a network of hundreds of thousands of men and women who have planted tens of millions of trees throughout Kenya.

Professor Maathai explores the challenges of grassroots organising and campaigning, and elucidates the key principles and practical concerns involved in running an environmental non-governmental organisation.

The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience
(New York: Lantern Books, 2003)

Unbowed: A Memoir

Unbowed - One Womans Story - A Memoir (New York- Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; Vintage-Anchor, 2008)
Unbowed – One Womans Story – A Memoir (New York- Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; Vintage-Anchor, 2008)

Unbowed tells the story of how a girl from the Central Highlands of Kenya became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in East and Central Africa and head a university department in Kenya. We witness Professor Maathai’s numerous run-ins with the brutally repressive Kenyan government and how she came to see planting trees as a way to empower local communities and galvanise a people to determine their own future.

Called “engrossing and eye-opening, a work of tremendous dignity and rigor” by Booklist and “essential reading” by the London Sunday Times, Unbowed “provides uplifting proof of the power of perseverance—and of the power of principled, passionate people to change their countries and inspire the world” (Washington Post).

Unbowed: A Memoir (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006; Vintage/Anchor, 2008)

The Challenge for Africa

Wangari Maathai Books - The Challenge for Africa (New York- Pantheon, 2009; Vintage-Anchor, 2010)
The Challenge for Africa (New York- Pantheon, 2009; Vintage-Anchor, 2010)

In her comprehensive and detailed examination of the complex and dynamic nature of the African continent, Professor Maathai offers both “hard-headed hope” and “realistic options” for change and improvement, and analyses the most egregious “bottlenecks to development in Africa”.

Occurring at the international, national, and individual levels—cultural upheaval, environmental degradation, and enduring poverty, among others. She deftly describes what Africans can and need to do for themselves, stressing all the while responsibility and accountability.

The Challenge for Africa (New York: Pantheon, 2009; Vintage/Anchor, 2010)

Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World

Wangari Maathai Books - Replenishing the Earth- Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World
(New York- Doubleday Image, 2010)
Replenishing the Earth- Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World(New York- Doubleday Image, 2010)

Professor Maathai argues that the key to self-empowerment and conservation lies in traditional spiritual values: love for the environment, self-betterment, gratitude and respect, and a commitment to service. These are the values that have animated the Green Belt Movement’s work.

While educated in the Christian tradition, Maathai draws inspiration from many faiths, celebrating the Jewish mandate tikkun olam (“repair the world” and renewing the Japanese term mottainai (“don’t waste”). Through rededication to these values, she believes, we might finally bring about healing for ourselves and the planet.

Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (New York: Doubleday Image, 2010)

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Leymah Roberta Gbowee – Liberian peace activist:

Leymah Roberta Gbowee - Liberian peace activist - Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia.
Leymah Roberta Gbowee – Liberian peace activist – Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia.

Leymah Roberta Gbowee, (born in 1 February 1972) is a Liberian peace activist responsible for leading a women’s nonviolent peace movement, Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.

Leymah Gbowee received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work in leading a women’s peace movement that brought an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. Gbowee shared the prize with fellow Liberian Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Yemen-native Tawakkol Karman.

Leymah is best known for leading a nonviolent movement that brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating, fourteen-year civil war in 2003. This historic achievement paved the way for the election of Africa’s first female head of state, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

It also marked the vanguard of a new wave of women emerging worldwide as essential and uniquely effective participants in brokering lasting peace and security. Gbowee’s grassroots organizing paved the way for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf—the first elected female president in Africa and a global symbol of women’s ability to stabilize nations recovering from war.

Leymah is best known for leading a nonviolent movement that brought together Christian and Muslim women to play a pivotal role in ending Liberia’s devastating, fourteen-year civil war in 2003. Click To Tweet

Leymah Roberta Gbowee – Liberian peace activist – Founder and President of the Gbowee Peace Foundation Africa, based in Monrovia.

Rigoberta (Menchu) Menchú – Human rights activist:

Rigoberta Menchú - Human rights activist - Social reform activities through the Catholic Church
Rigoberta Menchú – Human rights activist – Social reform activities through the Catholic Church

Rigoberta (Menchu) Menchú Tum is a K’iche’ political and human rights activist from Guatemala. Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the rights of Guatemala’s indigenous feminists during and after the Guatemalan Civil War, and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. Rigoberta Menchú was a Guatemalan human rights activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992. Despite her youth she became an eloquent spokesperson for the rights of the indigenous peoples of the entire Western Hemisphere.

The Nobel Peace Prize 1992 was awarded to Rigoberta Menchú Tum “in recognition of her work for social justice and ethno-cultural reconciliation based on respect for the rights of indigenous peoples.” Rigoberta Menchú Tum, who was living in self-imposed exile at the time, was awarded the prestigious accolade in recognition of her work: highlighting the exploitation and persecution of the country’s indigenous people during its brutal civil war.

Rigoberta Menchú was born on January 9, 1959 to a poor Indian peasant family and raised in the Quiche branch of the Mayan culture. Rigoberta Menchú soon became involved in social reform activities through the Catholic Church, and became prominent in the women’s rights movement when still only a teenager. Such reform work aroused considerable opposition in influential circles, especially after a guerilla organization established itself in the area.

The Menchú family was accused of taking part in guerrilla activities and Rigoberta’s father, Vicente, was imprisoned and tortured for allegedly having participated in the execution of a local plantation owner. After his release, he joined the recently founded Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC).

Menchú has dedicated her life to publicizing the rights of Guatemala's indigenous feminists during and after the Guatemalan Civil War, and to promoting indigenous rights in the country. Click To Tweet

Rigoberta (Menchu) Menchú – Human rights activist – Social reform activities through the Catholic Church

Julia Butterfly Hill – American environmental activist and tax redirection advocate.

Julia Butterfly Hill - American author - American environmental activist and tax redirection advocate
Julia Butterfly Hill – American author – American environmental activist and tax redirection advocate

Julia Butterfly Hill, byname of Julia Lorraine Hill, (born February 18, 1974, Mount Vernon, Missouri, U.S.), American activist known for having lived in a 180-foot-tall, roughly 1500-year-old California redwood tree for 738 days between December 10, 1997 and December 18, 1999. This was in an act of civil disobedience to prevent clear-cutting of ecologically significant forests.

Her family then referred to her as “Butterfly,” and she has kept the nickname ever since. When Hill was a young adult she suffered a nearly fatal car accident and, during her year-long recovery, reconsidered her purpose in life and set out on a path of self discovery.

Hill agreed to join in the protest, and within a matter of days, she was 180 feet above the ground, living on a pair of six-by-six-foot platforms in a 1500-year-old redwood tree nicknamed Luna. Her first stint in Luna lasted only six days, but in December of 1997, she began a treesit that lasted more than two years.

Luna is the American name given in October 1997 to a 1,000-year-old, 200-foot-tall coast redwood tree located near the community of Stafford in Humboldt County, California which was occupied for 738 days by forest activist Julia Butterfly Hill and saved by an agreement between Hill and the Pacific Lumber Company.

Julia Hill lived in a 180-foot-tall, roughly 1500-year-old California redwood tree for 738 days in an act of civil disobedience to prevent clear-cutting of ecologically significant forests. Click To Tweet

Julia Butterfly Hill – American author – American environmental activist and tax redirection advocate.

Shirin Ebadi – Iranian Political Activist

Shirin Ebadi - Iranian political activist - lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist and founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran.
Shirin Ebadi – Iranian political activist – lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist and founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran.

Shirin Ebadi – Iranian political activist – lawyer, a former judge and human rights activist and founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran. Shirin Ebadi, (born June 21, 1947, Hamadan, Iran), Iranian lawyer, writer, and teacher, who received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2003 for her efforts to promote democracy and human rights, especially those of women and children in Iran. She was the first Muslim woman and the first Iranian to receive the award.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2003 to Shirin Ebadi for her efforts for democracy and human rights. She has focused especially on the struggle for the rights of women and children. She sees no conflict between Islam and fundamental human rights.

Shirin Ebadi, J.D., was awarded the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote human rights, in particular, the rights of women, children, and political prisoners in Iran. She is the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and only the fifth Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in any field.

Shirin Ebadi is the first Muslim woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and only the fifth Muslim to receive a Nobel Prize in any field. Click To Tweet

Shirin Ebadi – Iranian political activist – lawyer and founder of Defenders of Human Rights Center in Iran

Rachel Louise Carson – marine biologist, author, and conservationist.

Rachel Louise Carson - marine biologist, author, and conservationist
Rachel Louise Carson – marine biologist, author, and conservationist

Rachel Carson, in full Rachel Louise Carson, (born May 27, 1907, Springdale, Pennsylvania, U.S.—died April 14, 1964, Silver Spring, Maryland), American biologist well known for her writings on environmental pollution and the natural history of the sea. Carson early developed a deep interest in the natural world. Her book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the global environmental movement.

Marine biologist, environmentalist and writer Rachel Carson was born on May 27, 1907, in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Carson first alerted the world about the environmental impact of fertilizers and pesticides. She grew up on a Pennsylvania farm, which gave her a lot of first-hand knowledge of nature and wildlife.

Rachel Carson’s writings about the dangers of pesticides helped start the modern environmental movement. Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson is hailed as one of the most important conservationists in history and is recognized as the mother of modern environmentalism.

Silent Spring is an environmental science book by Rachel Carson. The book was published on September 27, 1962, documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides. The result of her research was Silent Spring, which brought environmental concerns to the American public.

Silent Spring took Carson four years to complete. It meticulously described how DDT entered the food chain and accumulated in the fatty tissues of animals, including human beings, and caused cancer and genetic damage. DDT was used in the second half of World War II to control malaria and typhus among civilians and troops.

Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring and other writings documenting the adverse environmental effects caused by the indiscriminate use of pesticides are credited with advancing the global environmental movement. Click To Tweet

Rachel Louise Carson – marine biologist, author, and conservationist.

Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE – Primatologist and anthropologist

Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE - Primatologist and anthropologist - Founder of Jane Goodall Institute
Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE – Primatologist and anthropologist – Founder of Jane Goodall Institute

Jane Goodall is a primatologist most known for her long-term study of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. The Gombe chimp observation, which Jane began in 1960, is the world’s longest running continuous wildlife research project. Jane Goodall is the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees. Goodall is famous for her work among the chimpanzees of Gombe and for her efforts to raise awareness about the plight of both wild and captive chimpanzees.

A British anthropologist and primatologist, Jane Goodall is the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees. Goodall is famous for her work among the chimpanzees of Gombe and for her efforts to raise awareness about the plight of both wild and captive chimpanzees.

During her time in Rwanda, she actively supported conservation efforts, strongly opposed poaching and tourism in wildlife habitats, and made more people acknowledge sapient gorillas. Fossey and her gorillas were victims of mobbing; she was brutally murdered in her cabin at a remote camp in Rwanda in December 1985.

In July 1960, at the age of 26, Jane Goodall traveled from England to what is now Tanzania and ventured into the little-known world of wild chimpanzees. Equipped with little more than a notebook, binoculars, and her fascination with wildlife, Jane Goodall braved a realm of unknowns to give the world a remarkable window into humankind’s closest living relatives.

Through nearly 60 years of groundbreaking work, Dr. Jane Goodall has not only shown us the urgent need to protect chimpanzees from extinction; she has also redefined species conservation to include the needs of local people and the environment. Today she travels the world, speaking about the threats facing chimpanzees and environmental crises, urging each of us to take action on behalf of all living things and planet we share.

Goodall is famous for her work among the chimpanzees of Gombe and for her efforts to raise awareness about the plight of both wild and captive chimpanzees. Click To Tweet

Dame Jane Morris Goodall DBE – Primatologist and anthropologist – Founder of Jane Goodall Institute.

What the Green Belt Movement does:

Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, CAVS
Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, CAVS

Founded in 1977 by Professor Wangari Maathai, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 51 million trees in Kenya. Green Belt Movement works at the grassroots, national, and international levels to promote environmental conservation; to build climate resilience and empower communities, especially women and girls; to foster democratic space and sustainable livelihoods.

The Green Belt Movement Green Belt Movementis an environmental organization that empowers communities, particularly women, to conserve the environment and improve livelihoods.

Green Belt Movement was founded by Professor Wangari Maathai in 1977 under the auspices of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) to respond to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing.

WomenThatDid- Wangari Maathai Inspirational Women - ENTITY
WomenThatDid- Wangari Maathai Inspirational Women – ENTITY

Additionally, the Green Belt Movement encouraged the women to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work.

The work of Professor Maathai and the Green Belt Movement continues to stand as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person’s simple idea—that a community should come together to plant trees, can make a difference. Her legacy truly lives on through the Movement which to date remains in the frontline of advocating for environmental conservation in Kenya, and making great progress on reclaiming and restoring forest land.

The Green Belt Movement (GBM) has four main areas of activity— Tree Planting and Water Harvesting, Climate Change, Mainstream Advocacy, Gender Livelihood and Advocacy. Each area of work builds on and informs the others

Tree Planting and Water Harvesting:

Using GBM’s Watershed Based Approach, communities help to conserve biodiversity, restore ecosystems, and reduce the impact of climate change. GBM relies on its network of over 4000 community groups to deliver its watershed based approach. Our core values of volunteering in-service to your community help to inspire protection of public spaces for present and future generations.

Climate Change:

Current climate change policies and actions in Kenya, and world-over, do not provide effective support for community engagement in decision making, nor sustainable livelihoods and environmental conservation. It is because of this that the Green Belt MovementGreen Belt Movement has a Climate Change Program that aims at strengthening the understanding and capacity of rural communities to take action against climate change. As well as raise awareness nationally on the role of local communities and forests in tackling climate change.

Mainstream Advocacy:

We continue advocating for greater political accountability and the expansion of democratic space in Kenya. Green Belt Movement has called for, time and time again, an end to land grabbing, deforestation and corruption.

Gender Livelihood and Advocacy:

Green Belt Movement combines a grassroots approach with international advocacy. At the grassroots level, Green Belt Movement’s goal is to create climate resilient communities through restoration and protection of forest watersheds, and the creation of sustainable livelihoods for communities in Kenya and across Africa.

Green Belt Movement’s approach empowers communities to take action against climate change, the impacts of which are already being witnessed across Africa, through food security and water harvesting activities (adaptation) and planting the appropriate trees in appropriate places (mitigation).

At the international level, Green Belt Movement advocates for environmental policy that ensures the protection of natural forests and community rights, especially communities living close to and in forest ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa and the Congo Basin Rainforest Ecosystem.

Wangari Maathai- Environmentalist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner
Wangari Maathai- Environmentalist, Nobel Peace Prize Winner

CANCER COUNTRY | Pain of cancer patients across country:

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an annual campaign aimed at increasing awareness of the disease. Globally, breast cancer kills more women than any of the other cancers combined. In Kenya, it is not just breast cancer that is ravaging families, but other cancers too have become a pain, killing nearly 32, 000 Kenyans annually.

Nimrod Taabu traversed over five counties in the last one year to bring you harrowing stories of cancer patients from the elderly, middle aged, the youth and even children. In this first part of a two part series titled ‘Cancer Country’, Nimrod takes a journey into the lives of 70 year old Timothy Mutua from Korogocho slums who is ailing from prostate cancer, 45-year old Mama Njoki with cancer of the cervix, 51 year old Jane Nyambura from Dandora who has breast cancer as well as Hannah Wambui whose painful wounds just never seem to go away.

These are just among the few painful stories highlighted in this special report. #CancerCountry

Taking Root Documentary: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

TAKING ROOT tells the dramatic story of Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai whose simple act of planting trees grew into the nationwide Green Belt Movement dedicated to safeguarding the environment, protecting human rights, and defending democracy.

The film has been translated into 12 languages and can be streamed and downloaded for FREE via this Vimeo page by organizations and individuals working to stop deforestation, the destructive extraction of other natural resources, and related environmental and social issues.

International editions of the film are available in Arabic, Bangla, Chinese, French, Haitian Creole, Hindi, Indonesian, Kiswahili, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

The award-winning documentary ‘Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai’ by Lisa Merton & Alan Dater tells the inspiring story of GBM and its founder. 

TAKING ROOT is a compelling documentary narrative about the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, Maathai suggested rural women plant trees to address problems stemming from a degraded environment. Under her leadership, their tree-planting grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, defend human rights and promote democracy, and brought Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.

This little gem captures the heart and soul of the Green Belt Movement, planting inspiration and joy.” – Wanjira Mathai, International Liaison, The Green Belt Movement.

“It is the people who must save the environment. It is the people who must make their leaders change. And we cannot be intimidated. So we must stand up for what we believe in.” – Wangari Maathai

More About Wangari Maathai

  • Wangari Maathai and Jason Bock. The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. 2003.
  • Wallace, Aubrey. Eco-Heroes: Twelve Tales of Environmental Victory. Mercury House. 1993.
  • Dianne Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter and Esther Wangari, editors. Feminist Political Ecology: Global Issues and Local Experiences.

Awards, Achievements, and Professional Affiliations

DOSSIER:

  • Date of Birth: April 1, 1940 
  • Deceased: September 25, 2011
  • Place of Birth: Nyeri, Kenya
  • Nationality: Kenyan
  • Family: Three children (Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta) and two grandchildren (Ruth Wangari and Elsa Wanjiru)

EDUCATION:

  • Ph.D., Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1971)
  • M.S., Biological Sciences, University of Pittsburgh, USA (1966)
  • B.S., Biology, Mount St. Scholastica College, USA (1964)

PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENTS:

ACADEMIC APPOINTMENTS:

  • Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation, Yale University, USA (2002)
  • Montgomery Fellow, Dartmouth College, USA (2001)
  • Endowed Chair in Gender & Women’s Studies named “Fuller-Maathai,” Connecticut College (2000)
  • Associate Professor, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1977)
  • Chair, Department of Veterinary Anatomy, University of Nairobi (1976)

Reference: