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Wangari Maathai

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Wangari Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai
Wangari Maathai holding a trophy awarded to her by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights
Born Wangari Muta
(1940-04-01)1 April 1940
Ihithe village, Tetu division, Nyeri District, Kenya (then known as Nyeri, Kenya Colony)
Died 25 September 2011(2011-09-25) (aged 71)
Nairobi, Kenya
Ethnicity Kikuyu
Citizenship Kenyan
Education B.Sc: biology
M.Sc: biological sciences
Ph.D: veterinary anatomy
Alma mater Benedictine College
University of Pittsburgh
University College of Nairobi
Occupation Environmentalist, political activist, writer
Known for Green Belt Movement
Religion Roman Catholic[1]
Awards Nobel Peace Prize
Indira Gandhi Peace Prize 2006
recorded July 2007

Wangari Muta Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011) was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica (Benedictine College) and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

In the 1970s, Maathai founded the environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 1986, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace". Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005. She was an Honorary Councillor of the World Future Council. In 2011, Maathai died of complications from ovarian cancer.


  • Early life and education 1
  • Activism and political life 1972–1977 2
    • Personal problems 1977–1979 2.1
    • Political problems 1979–1982 2.2
    • Green Belt Movement 2.3
    • Government intervention 2.4
    • Push for democracy 2.5
    • Election to parliament 2.6
  • Nobel Peace Prize 2004 3
  • AIDS 4
  • Later life 2005–2011 5
  • Death 6
  • Wangari Maathai Award 7
  • Posthumous recognition 8
  • Selected publications 9
  • Honors 10
  • See also 11
  • Notes 12
  • References 13
  • External links 14

Early life and education

On 1 April 1940, Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya. Her family was Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, and had lived in the area for several generations.[2] Around 1943, Maathai's family relocated to a white-owned farm in the Rift Valley, near the town of Nakuru, where her father had found work.[3] Late in 1947, she returned to Ihithe with her mother, as two of her brothers were attending primary school in the village, and there was no schooling available on the farm where her father worked. Her father remained at the farm.[4] Shortly afterward, at the age of eight, she joined her brothers at Ihithe Primary School.

At age eleven, Maathai moved to St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri.[5] Maathai studied at St. Cecilia's for four years. During this time, she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism. She was involved with the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted "to serve God by serving fellow human beings."[6] Studying at St. Cecilia's, she was sheltered from the ongoing Mau Mau Uprising, which forced her mother to move from their homestead to an emergency village in Ihithe.[7] When she completed her studies there in 1956, she was rated first in her class, and was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School in Limuru.[8]

However, the end of East African colonialism was nearing, and Kenyan politicians, such as Tom Mboya, were proposing ways to make education in Western nations available to promising students. John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of some 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States in September 1960.[9]

Nothing is more beautiful than cultivating the land at dusk. At that time of day in the central highlands the air and the soil are cool, the sun is going down, the sunlight is golden against the ridges and the green of trees, and there is usually a breeze. As you remove the weeds and press the earth around the crops you feel content, and wish the light would last longer so you could cultivate more. Earth and water, air and waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil. When I was a child I sometimes became so absorbed working in the fields with my machete that I didn’t notice the end of the day until it got so dark that I could no longer differentiate between the weeds and crops. At that point I knew it was time to go home, on the narrow paths that criss crossed the fields and rivers and woodlots.

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, p. 47.

She received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas, where she majored in biology, with minors in chemistry and German.[10] After receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1964, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh for a master's degree in biology. Her graduate studies there were funded by the Africa-America Institute,[11] and during her time in Pittsburgh, she first experienced environmental restoration, when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution.[12] In January 1966, Maathai received her M.Sc in biological sciences,[13] and was appointed to a position as research assistant to a professor of zoology at University College of Nairobi.[14]

Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai dropped her forename, preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta.[15] When she arrived at the university to start her new job, she was informed that it had been given to someone else. Maathai believed this was because of gender and tribal bias.[16] After a two-month job search, Professor Reinhold Hofmann, from the University of Giessen in Germany, offered her a job as a research assistant in the microanatomy section of the newly established Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi.[17] In April 1966, she met Mwangi Mathai, another Kenyan who had studied in America, who would later become her husband.[18] She also rented a small shop in the city, and established a general store, at which her sisters worked. In 1967, at the urging of Professor Hofmann, she traveled to the University of Giessen in Germany in pursuit of a doctorate. She studied both at Giessen and the University of Munich.

In the spring of 1969, she returned to Nairobi to continue studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer. In May, she and Mwangi Mathai married.[19] Later that year, she became pregnant with her first child, and her husband campaigned for a seat in Parliament, narrowly losing. During the course of the election, Tom Mboya, who had been instrumental in founding the program which sent her overseas, was assassinated. This led to President Kenyatta effectually ending multi-party democracy in Kenya. Shortly after, her first son, Waweru, was born.[20] In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD, her doctorate in veterinary anatomy,[13] from the University College of Nairobi, which became the University of Nairobi the following year. She completed her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines.[21] Her daughter, Wanjira, was born in December 1971.

Activism and political life 1972–1977

Maathai continued to teach at Nairobi, becoming a senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to any of these positions.[22] During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university, going so far as to trying to turn the academic staff association of the university into a union, in order to negotiate for benefits. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met.[23] In addition to her work at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became involved in a number of civic organizations in the early 1970s. She was a member of the Nairobi branch of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters was established in Nairobi following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Maathai also joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).[24] Through her work at these various volunteer associations, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya's problems was environmental degradation.[25]

We hoped that these elections would provide the people of Kenya with a fairer and truer representation of their aspirations and beliefs. To our dismay and despair, however, the elections were the most disturbing and distorted in Kenya’s history. The government introduced a highly controversial system of “que” voting. Voters lined up behind their candidate and election officials counted each line and then told the people to go home. When election officials announced the winner, it was often the candidate with the shortest line of voters behind him! Since the voters were at home, there was nothing that could be done: The winner had been declared. The vote- rigging was so blatant that people who had lost their races were declared the winners in broad daylight with no embarrassment whatsoever on the part of the government… I knew that we could not live with a political system that killed creativity, nurtured corruption, and produced people who were afraid of their own leaders. It would be only a matter of time before the government and I came in to further conflict…

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, pp. 182–183.

In 1974, Maathai's family expanded to include her third child, Muta. Her husband campaigned again for a seat in Parliament, hoping to represent the Lang'ata constituency, and won. During his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. These promises led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed, and led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved the planting of trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery, collocated with a government tree nursery in Karura Forest. Envirocare ran into multiple problems, primarily dealing with funding. The project failed. However, through conversations concerning Envirocare and her work at the Environment Liaison Centre, UNEP made it possible to send Maathai to the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I, in June 1976.[26]

In 1977, Maathai spoke to the NCWK concerning her attendance at Habitat I. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported. On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji Park on the outskirts of the city where they planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first "Green Belt" which was first known as the "Save the Land Harambee" and then became the Green Belt Movement.[27] Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.[28]

Personal problems 1977–1979

Maathai and her husband, Mwangi Maathai, separated in 1977. After a lengthy separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her". In addition to naming her as "cruel" in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament,[29] which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi's favour. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt.[29] The interview later led the judge to charge Maathai with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang'ata Women's Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Maathai drop his surname. She chose to add an extra "a" instead.[30][31]

The divorce had been costly, and with lawyers' fees and the loss of her husband's income, Maathai found it difficult to provide for herself and her children on her university wages. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. As this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia, she was unable to bring her children with her. Maathai chose to send them to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, they lived with their father until 1985.[32]

Political problems 1979–1982

In 1979, shortly after the divorce, Maathai ran for the position of chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organization consisting of many women's organizations in the country. The newly elected [61]

In a 2004 interview with Time, in response to questions concerning that report, Maathai replied, "I have no idea who created AIDS and whether it is a biological agent or not. But I do know things like that don't come from the moon. I have always thought that it is important to tell people the truth, but I guess there is some truth that must not be too exposed," and when asked what she meant, she continued, "I'm referring to AIDS. I am sure people know where it came from. And I'm quite sure it did not come from the monkeys."[62] In response she issued the following statement:

Later life 2005–2011

Maathai in Nairobi with Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later Prime Minister) Gordon Brown in 2005
Maathai and then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama in Nairobi in 2006

On 28 March 2005, Maathai was elected the first president of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council and was appointed a goodwill ambassador for an initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.[64] In 2006, she was one of the eight flagbearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. Also on 21 May 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by and gave the commencement address at Connecticut College. She supported the International Year of Deserts and Desertification program. In November 2006, she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign. Maathai was one of the founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative along with sister Nobel Peace laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Six women representing North America and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa decided to bring together their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality. It is the goal of the Nobel Women's Initiative to help strengthen work being done in support of women's rights around the world.[65]

In August 2006, then United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its subsidiary, the Kyoto Protocol.[66]

Maathai was defeated in the Party of National Unity's primary elections for its parliamentary candidates in November 2007 and chose to instead run as the candidate of a smaller party.[67] She was defeated in the December 2007 parliamentary election. She called for a recount of votes in the presidential election (officially won by Mwai Kibaki, but disputed by the opposition) in her constituency, saying that both sides should feel the outcome was fair and that there were indications of fraud.[68]

In June 2009, Maathai was named as one of's first peace heroes.[69] Until her death in 2011, Maathai served on the Eminent Advisory Board[70] of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA).


Wangari Maathai died of complications arising from ovarian cancer while receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital on 25 September 2011.[71]

Wangari Maathai Award

In 2012, the Collaborative Partnership on ForestsCPF, an international consortium of 14 organizations, secretariats and institutions working on international forest issues, launched the inaugural Wangari Maathai Award to honour and commemorate an extraordinary woman who championed forest issues around the world. The USD20,000 award is given in recognition of outstanding contributions made by an individual to preserve, restore and sustainably manage forests and to communicate the key role forests play in rural livelihoods and the environment across generations.

The 2012 inaugural winner of the Award[72] was Narayan Kaji Shrestha. Shrestha is recognized as one of the main architects of the community forestry movement in Nepal, which he has spent three decades promoting and which has contributed significantly to restoring forest resources in the country. He guided early attempts to create a more participatory approach to community decision-making, reaching out to women and low-caste villagers and initiating the country’s first user-managed community forestry group. He provided leadership to the national organization that later became the Federation of Community Forestry Users in Nepal and continues to be a guide and mentor to many practitioners and leaders involved in participatory resource management. The jury also awarded Kurshida Begum of Bangladesh an Honourable Mention prize for her work helping women in her village form a community patrol group alongside forest department guards to protect the forests and biodiversity of the Tenkaf Wildlife Sanctuary from illegal logging and poaching. Her work has helped women gain an effective voice in their community, provided them with a steady source of income and has helped her communicate the importance of forest and natural resource issues to visitors to the sanctuary.

Posthumous recognition

Wangari Maathai memorial trees and garden at the University of Pittsburgh

On what would have been her 73rd birthday, 1 April 2013, Maathai was posthumously honoured with a Google Doodle.

On 25 September 2013, the Wangari Maathai Trees and Garden was dedicated on the lawn of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning.[73] The memorial includes two red maples symbolizing Maathai’s "commitment to the environment, her founding of the Green Belt Movement, and her roots in Kenya and in Pittsburgh" and a flower garden planted in a circular shape that representing her "global vision and dedication to the women and children of the world" with an ornamental maple tree in the middle signifying "how one small seed can change the world".[74]

In 2014, at what would have been her 50-year reunion, her Mount St. Scholastica classmates and Benedictine College unveiled a statue of the Nobel laureate at her alma mater's Atchison, Kan., campus.[75]

Selected publications

  • The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. Lantern Books. 2004. ; (1985)  
  • The bottom is heavy too: even with the Green Belt Movement : the Fifth Edinburgh Medal Address (1994)
  • Bottle-necks of development in Africa (1995)
  • The Canopy of Hope: My Life Campaigning for Africa, Women, and the Environment (2002)
  • Unbowed: A Memoir (2006) ISBN 9780307492333
  • Reclaiming rights and resources women, poverty and environment (2007)
  • Rainwater Harvesting (2008)
  • State of the world's minorities 2008: events of 2007 (2008)
  • The Challenge for Africa. Anchor Books. 2010. ; (2009)  
  • Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril. (2010) chapter Nelson, Michael P. and Kathleen Dean Moore (eds.). Trinity University Press, ISBN 9781595340665
  • Replenishing the Earth (2010) ISBN 978-0-307-59114-2


See also


  1. ^ Wangari Maathai – God is on this Mountain, Philip Carr-Gomm blogsite, 19 October 2011
  2. ^ Wangari Maathai, Unbowed: A Memoir, Knopf, 2006. ISBN 0-307-26348-7, p. 3.
  3. ^ Unbowed, pp. 14–15.
  4. ^ Unbowed, p. 29.
  5. ^ Unbowed, p. 53.
  6. ^ Unbowed, pp. 60–61.
  7. ^ Unbowed, pp. 63–69.
  8. ^ Unbowed, p. 69.
  9. ^ Unbowed, pp. 73–74.
  10. ^ Unbowed, p. 79.
  11. ^ Unbowed, p. 92.
  12. ^ Unbowed, pp. 93–94.
  13. ^ a b c UNCCD profile of Wangari Maathai. Retrieved 2009-04-10
  14. ^ Unbowed, pp. 94–95.
  15. ^ Unbowed, p. 96.
  16. ^ Unbowed, p. 101.
  17. ^ Unbowed, p. 102.
  18. ^ Unbowed, p. 105.
  19. ^ Unbowed, pp. 106–109.
  20. ^ Unbowed, pp. 109–11.
  21. ^ Unbowed, p. 112.
  22. ^ Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize 2004 Retrieved 2009-02-24.
  23. ^ Unbowed, pp. 114–118.
  24. ^ Unbowed, pp. 119–122.
  25. ^ Unbowed, pp. 124–125.
  26. ^ Unbowed, pp. 125–129.
  27. ^ Unbowed, pp. 130–132.
  28. ^ Unbowed, pp. 134–137.
  29. ^ a b Perlez, Jane, "Nairobi Journal; Skyscraper's Enemy Draws a Daily Dose of Scorn", New York Times, 6 December 1989. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  30. ^ "Conservation and Feminism: Africa's Greenheart." The Economist, 21 September 2006.
  31. ^ Unbowed, pp. 139–151.
  32. ^ Unbowed, pp. 151–155.
  33. ^ Unbowed, pp. 156–160.
  34. ^ Unbowed, pp. 160–163.
  35. ^ Unbowed, pp. 168–173.
  36. ^ Unbowed, pp. 175–179.
  37. ^ Unbowed, pp. 180–183.
  38. ^ Unbowed, pp. 184–188.
  39. ^ Unbowed, pp. 190–193.
  40. ^ Unbowed, p. 196.
  41. ^ a b The Ecologist (1 April 2001). "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly". Retrieved 10 April 2009.
  42. ^ Unbowed, pp. 193–203.
  43. ^ Unbowed, pp. 208–215.
  44. ^ Lacey, Marc, "Like a Tree, Unbowed", New York Times, 9 October 2004. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  45. ^ Motavelli, Jim. (2002). Africa's green belt: Wangari Maathai's movement is built on the power of trees. Earth Action Network. Retrieved 2009-04-10.
  46. ^ Perlez, Jane, "Violence in Nairobi Draws a Warning by U.S.". New York Times, 5 March 1992. Retrieved 16 April 2009.
  47. ^ Unbowed, pp. 217–225.
  48. ^ Unbowed, pp. 226–228.
  49. ^ Unbowed, pp. 230–235.
  50. ^ Unbowed, pp. 235–252.
  51. ^ Unbowed, pp. 254–259.
  52. ^ Unbowed, pp. 261–270.
  53. ^ Unbowed, pp. 270–271.
  54. ^ Unbowed, pp. 280–284.
  55. ^ Unbowed, pp. 284–285.
  56. ^ Unbowed, pp. 286–289.
  57. ^ Unbowed, p. 260.
  58. ^ "The Nobel Peace Prize for 2004". Oslo:  
  59. ^ Unbowed, p. 291.
  60. ^ a b The Nobel Peace Prize 2004:Press Release (8 October 2004). Retrieved 3 May 2009.
  61. ^ a b Sindelar, Daisy (10 December 2004). "World: Africa's First Female Nobel Peace Laureate Accepts Award Amid Controversy Over AIDS Remarks". Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  62. ^ "10 Questions: Wangari Maathai". TIME Magazine. Retrieved 3 May 2009.
  63. ^ Maathai, Wangari (12 December 2004). "The Challenge of AIDS in Africa". Retrieved 28 September 2011. 
  64. ^ Unbowed, p. 295.
  65. ^ Nobel Women's Initiative
  66. ^ Obama: 'Press freedom is like tending a garden'. Mail & Guardian (South Africa), 28 August 200602. Retrieved 3 May 2009.
  67. ^ "Upset in Kenyan primaries", Sapa (, 18 November 2007.
  68. ^ "Opposition claims polls fraud discovered in 48 elective zones", Panapress (, 30 December 2007.
  69. ^ "Peace Heroes: Wangari Maathai". PeaceByPeace. 26 June 2009. 
  70. ^ "Eminent Advisory Board". 
  71. ^ "Kenya's Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai dies aged 71". BBC News. 26 September 2011. Retrieved 26 September 2011. 
  72. ^ FAO Media Centre. "New international forestry award". Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Retrieved 22 November 2012. 
  73. ^ Wereschagin, Mike (25 September 2013). "Pitt honors student, eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner, who influenced Kenyan culture". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Retrieved 26 September 2013. 
  74. ^ "Garden dedication". University Times 46 (3). 26 September 2013. Retrieved 19 October 2014. 
  75. ^
  76. ^ Highlights of the 1991 Africa Prize. The Hunger Project. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  77. ^ a b Wangari Maathai: 'An alumna of whom we are most proud'. Retrieved 8 March 2010.
  78. ^ Masset, Cara (23 September 2013). "Pitt Dedicates Trees, Garden in Honor of Wangari Maathai". Pitt Chronicle (University of Pittsburgh). Retrieved 25 September 2013. 
  79. ^ NAACP sets a date for image awards: Nominees to be announced in January; ceremony to be held following month. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  80. ^ Mba, Ngozi (22 January 2009). Nominees for 40th NAACP Image Awards Unveiled. Jamati Online. Retrieved 24 February 2009.
  81. ^ "Japan confers highest decoration on Professor Wangari Maathai". Nairobi,  
  82. ^ """Professor Wangari Maathai was awarded "Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. Embassy of the Republic of Kenya in Japan. Archived from the original on 4 May 2009. Retrieved 13 July 2009. 
  83. ^ Jim Patterson (12 May 2011). "Nobel prize-winner tells seniors to be agents of change". 
  84. ^ Syracuse University webpage


  • 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
  • Wangari Maathai, Bottom is Heavy Too: Edinburgh Medal Lecture, Edinburgh UP, 1994. ISBN 0-7486-0518-5
  • Picture book (fr.), Franck Prévot (text) & Aurélia Fronty (illustrations), Wangari Maathai, la femme qui plante des millions d'arbres, Rue du monde, 2011 (ISBN 978-2-3550-4158-7)

External links

External media
Wangari Maathai — Planting the Future, On Being, 29 September 2011
Maathai Nobel Prize lecture
Climate Change TV Video interview with Dr Wangari Muta Maathai. Filmed during the Conference of the Parties meeting in Poznan, Poland, December 2008
Wangari Maathai presents a talk as a part of the Architecture and Climate Change lecture series held by the Royal Institute of British Architects
Audio: Wangari Maathai in conversation on the BBC World Service discussion programme The Forum
Video: Wangari Maathai tells the story of the Hummingbird
  • Works by or about Wangari Maathai in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  • Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai documentary film
  • Official Site: The Green Belt Movement and Wangari Maathai
  • Wangari Maathai and the Billion Tree Campaign
  • Feature on Wangari Maathai by the International Museum of Women
  • Appearances on C-SPAN
  • The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern and Wangari Maathai (Video)
  • Seeds of change planting a path to peace
  • Nobel Women's Initiative

Controversy arose when it was reported by


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. They, too, were now smiling broadly, some cheering and hugging me as if to both comfort and congratulate me, letting my tears fall on their shoulders and hiding my face from some of my staff, whom they felt shouldn’t see me cry. But these were tears of great joy at an extraordinary moment!

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, p. 291-292.

Wangari Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace".[58] She had received a call from Ole Danbolt Mjos, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, on 8 October informing her of the news.[59][60] She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.

Nobel Peace Prize 2004

Upon her return to Kenya, Maathai again campaigned for parliament in the Kenya African National Union, and in Tetu Constituency Maathai won with an overwhelming 98% of the vote.[56] In January 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and served in that capacity until November 2005.[13] She founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 to allow candidates to run on a platform of conservation as embodied by the Green Belt Movement. It is a member of the Federation of Green Parties of Africa and the Global Greens.[57]

Election to parliament

In 2001, the government again planned to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. While protesting this and collecting petition signatures on 7 March 2001, in Wang'uru village near Mount Kenya, Maathai was again arrested. The following day, following international and popular protest at her arrest, she was released without being charged. On 7 July 2001, shortly after planting trees at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to commemorate Saba Saba Day, Maathai was again arrested. Later that evening, she was again released without being charged.[54] In January 2002, Maathai returned to teaching as the Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation at the Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She remained there until June 2002, teaching a course on sustainable development focused on the work of the Green Belt Movement.[55]

In the summer of 1998, Maathai learned of a government plan to privatize large areas of public land in the Karura Forest, just outside Nairobi, and give it to political supporters. Maathai protested this through letters to the government and the press. She went with the Green Belt Movement to Karura Forest, planting trees and protesting the destruction of the forest. On 8 January 1999, a group of protesters including Maathai, six opposition MPs, journalists, international observers, and Green Belt members and supporters returned to the forest to plant a tree in protest. The entry to the forest was guarded by a large group of men. When she tried to plant a tree in an area that had been designated to be cleared for a golf course, the group was attacked. Many of the protesters were injured, including Maathai, four MPs, some of the journalists, and German environmentalists. When she reported the attack to the police, they refused to return with her to the forest to arrest her attackers. However, the attack had been filmed by Maathai's supporters, and the event provoked international outrage.[41][52] Student protests broke out throughout Nairobi, and some of these groups were violently broken up by the police. Protests continued until 16 August 1999, when the president announced that he was banning all allocation of public land.[53]

During the elections of 1997, Maathai again wished to unite the opposition in order to defeat the ruling party. In November, less than two months before the election, she decided to run for parliament and for president as a candidate of the Liberal Party. Her intentions were widely questioned in the press; many believed she should simply stick to running the Green Belt Movement and stay out of politics. On the day of the election, a rumour that Maathai had withdrawn from the election and endorsed another candidate was printed in the media. Maathai garnered few votes and lost the election.[51]

The following year, ethnic clashes occurred throughout Kenya. Maathai believed they were incited by the government, who had warned of stark consequences to Mikhail Gorbachev. When Maathai responded that she could not attend as she did not believe the government would allow her to leave the country and she was in hiding, Gorbachev pressured the government of Kenya to allow her to travel freely. President arap Moi denied limiting her travel, and she was allowed to leave the country, although too late for the meeting in Tokyo. Maathai was again recognized internationally, and she flew to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal in April 1993. In May she went to Chicago to receive the Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award, and in June she attended the UN's World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.[50]

It is often difficult to describe to those who live in a free society what life is like in an authoritarian regime. You don't know who to trust. You worry that you, your family, or your friends will be arrested and jailed without due process. The fear of political violence or death, whether through direct assassinations or targeted “accidents”, is constant. Such was the case in Kenya, especially during the 1990s.

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, p. 206.

During the first multi-party election of Kenya, in 1992, Maathai strove to unite the opposition and fair elections in Kenya. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) had fractured into FORD-Kenya (led by Oginga Odinga) and FORD-Asili (led by Kenneth Matiba); former vice president Mwai Kibaki had left the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, and formed the Democratic Party. Maathai and many others believed such a fractured opposition would lead to KANU's retaining control of the country, so they formed the Middle Ground Group in an effort to unite the opposition. Maathai was chosen to serve as its chairperson. Also during the election, Maathai and like-minded opposition members formed the Movement for Free and Fair Elections. Despite their efforts, the opposition did not unite, and the ruling KANU party used intimidation and state-held media to win the election, retaining control of parliament.[49]

Push for democracy

During this time, Maathai was recognized with various awards internationally, but the Kenyan government did not appreciate her work. In 1991 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership in London. CNN aired a three-minute segment about the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment was cut out. In June 1992, during the long protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The Kenyan government accused Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. Despite this, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the summit.[48]

On 28 February 1992, while released on bail, Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike in a corner of Uhuru Park, which they labelled Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners. After four days of hunger strike, on 3 March 1992, the police forcibly removed the protesters. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalized.[44] President Daniel arap Moi called her "a mad woman" and "a threat to the order and security of the country".[45] The attack drew international criticism. The US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" by the violence and by the forcible removal of the hunger strikers.[46] When the prisoners were not released, the protesters – mostly mothers of those in prison – moved their protest to All Saints Cathedral, seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, across from Uhuru Park. The protest there continued, with Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.[47]

In January 1992, it came to the attention of Maathai and other pro-democracy activists that a list of people were targeted for assassination and that a government-sponsored coup was possible. Maathai's name was on the list. The pro-democracy group, known as the Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy) put pressure on the Kenyan government to substantiate the charges against the pro-democracy activists or risk damaging relations with the United States. In November 1992, the Kenyan government dropped the charges.[43]

Despite Maathai's protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on 15 November 1989. Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on 11 December. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President Daniel arap Moi stated that those who opposed the project had "insects in their heads". On 12 December, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet.[40] She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home. The government then audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. Despite all this, her protests, the government's response – and the media coverage it garnered – led foreign investors to cancel the project in January 1990.[41][42]

The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, instead responding through the media that Maathai was "a crazy woman"; that denying the project in Uhuru Park would take more than a small portion of public park land; and proclaiming the project as a "fine and magnificent work of architecture" opposed by only the "ignorant few." On 8 November 1989, Parliament expressed outrage at Maathai's actions, complaining of her letters to foreign organizations and calling the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members "a bunch of divorcees". They suggested that if Maathai was so comfortable writing to Europeans, perhaps she should go live in Europe.[39]

When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, p. 192.

In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Hyde Park or Central Park and maintaining that it could not be tolerated.[38]

In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party regime opposed many of the movement's positions regarding democratic rights. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people from meeting without a government license. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power, according to Maathai.[37]

Government intervention

[36] The UN held the third global women's conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Maathai arranged seminars and presentations to describe the work the Green Belt Movement was doing in Kenya. She escorted delegates to see nurseries and plant trees. She met Peggy Snyder, the head of UNIFEM, and

Although I was a highly educated woman, it did not seem odd to me to work with my hands, often with my knees on the ground, alongside rural woman. Some politicians and others in the 1980s and 1990s ridiculed me for doing so. But I had no problem with it, and the rural women both accepted and appreciated that I was working with them to improve their lives and the environment. After all, I was a child of the same soil. Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from 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 we 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 Muta Maathai – Unbowed, pp. 137–138.

Maathai moved into a small home she had purchased years before, and focused on the NCWK while she searched for employment. In the course of her work through the NCWK, she was approached by Wilhelm Elsrud, executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society. He wished to partner with the Green Belt Movement and offered her the position of coordinator. Employed again, Maathai poured her efforts into the Green Belt Movement. Along with the partnership for the Norwegian Forestry Society, the movement had also received "seed money" from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed for the expansion of the movement, for hiring additional employees to oversee the operations, and for continuing to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings throughout the country. It allowed her to refine the operations of the movement, paying a small stipend to the women's husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of seedlings planted.[35]

Green Belt Movement

In 1982, the Parliamentary seat representing her home region of Nyeri was open, and Maathai decided to campaign for the seat. As required by law, she resigned her position with the University of Nairobi to campaign for office. The courts decided that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not re-registered to vote in the last presidential election in 1979. Maathai believed this to be false and illegal, and brought the matter to court. The court was to meet at nine in the morning, and if she received a favourable ruling, was required to present her candidacy papers in Nyeri by three in the afternoon that day. The judge disqualified her from running on a technicality. When she requested her job back, she was denied. As she lived in university housing and was no longer a staff member, she was evicted.[34]

It soon became obvious that politics was at play again. The ruling party didn’t want me in Parliament and had figured out a way to stop me from getting there. Once again, I decided to fight by taking the authorities to court and challenging their reason for disqualifying me, which I knew to be completely illegal. The court sat at nine o’clock on a Saturday morning, but I was required to present my candidacy papers by noon that same day in Nyeri, which is nearly a three-hour drive from Nairobi. Seeing that it would be impossible for me to meet the deadline if I drove, some friends had hired a plane to take me to Nyeri as soon as the court rendered its verdict. By the time the Judge made his final ruling, disqualifying me from running for parliament, it was nearly midday. Even with the plane and favorable ruling, I would have arrived in Nyeri too late. My case, like many others, demonstrated a miscarriage of justice that was frequent at that time in Kenya and that led me, later, to be involved in the pro-democracy movement. Once again, I had lost in court. I would not be able to run.

Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed, pp. 161.


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