Born in a small village in Nyeri, Kenya, Wangari Maathai accomplished a lot of “firsts” – first woman in east and central Africa to receive a doctoral degree, first Kenyan woman to become chair of a university department, and, in 2004, the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. However, Maathai is most well known for founding Kenya’s Green Belt Movement in 1977. Through her work with various civic organizations, including the National Council of Women in Kenya (NCWK), she had come to the conclusion that the root of most of Kenya’s problems were due to environmental neglect. The main platform of the Green Belt Movement was forest renewal, and Maathai spearheaded a campaign of tree-planting across the country. Maathai made a special effort to involve women in the movement by encouraging them to plant tree nurseries, paying them a small stipend for each seedling. Eventually, the movement partnered with the Norwegian Forestry Society, who helped fund the movement’s expansion. By 1986, the movement had expanded throughout Africa, leading to the creation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Other African countries used the organization as a model for creating their own programs to combat a wide range of issues, including hunger, water shortages and deforestation. In the late 80s, the Kenyan government under President Daniel arap Moi came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement for their pro-democracy position, and resorted to electoral fraud to keep the movement from gaining more power. In 1989, she led protests against the upcoming construction of a huge civic and commercial building complex in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government refused to respond and construction was to be completed as planned, but the joke turned out to be on them – the worldwide media coverage of Maathai’s campaign caused foreign investors to cancel the project in 1990. Maathai continued to fight for the environment, democracy and women’s rights throughout the next few decades, despite brutal treatment by the Kenyan government and several arrests. It soon became harder and harder for them to contain her, due to her international popularity. In 2002, she was elected to Parliament; the following year, she founded the Mazingira Green Party and was appointed Assistant Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. She passed away in 2011 due to ovarian cancer, but the Green Belt Movement is still very much alive and continues to be one of the most successful environmental movements in history.
Works by Wangari Maathai:
Unbowed: A Memoir
The Greenbelt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience
The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment