Wangari Maathai, 1940–2011
The woman who fought for Africa’s forests
Wangari Maathai was a woman of many firsts. The Kenyan environmentalist was the first woman from central or east Africa to obtain a doctorate, the first female professor at the University of Nairobi, and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, “in the foothills of Mount Kenya,” and the unsullied environment of her childhood was a lifelong inspiration for her work, said The New York Times. A “star student,” she won a scholarship to Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., and later obtained her doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi.
In 1977 Maathai created the Green Belt Movement, an organization devoted to fighting “the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification,” said Agence France-Presse. Maathai and her army of underprivileged women are credited with planting 30 million trees across Africa.
Maathai brought “courage and tenacity” to all her endeavors, said the Nairobi Daily Nation. She was a forthright critic of President Daniel Arap Moi during the 1980s, taking on “powerful individuals” within the government who were selling off Kenyan forests for profit, and joining in a hunger strike with the mothers of political prisoners. But Maathai’s activism came at a “terrible price,” said Time. She was repeatedly “jailed and beaten” by forces loyal to the government. Her husband divorced her in 1979, claiming his wife was “too strong-willed.” When she later criticized the judge in that case, she was thrown in jail.
Maathai’s life’s work was vindicated in 2004, said BBCNews.com, when she won the Nobel Peace Prize. The citation praised her not only for planting trees but also for recognizing “the social side of how the tree-planting works”—sustaining the fragile environments of developing countries, where losing forests often translates into a “loss of prospects for people down the track.” In her Nobel acceptance speech, Maathai spoke of a new era in which humanity would reach a “higher moral ground.” There would come a time, she said, when we “shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”