wangari maathai first african woman nobel prize winner

Wangari Maathai: The First African Woman & First Environmentalist to Win the Nobel Peace Prize

Wangari Maathai. Have you ever heard that name before? She was an outstanding woman, and remains a powerful example of how one person can be a force for change starting from a small community and impacting the whole world! Her exceptional contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace earned her the Nobel Peace Prize, making her the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize. Let’s embark on her story by first taking a look at what a few renowned world leaders had to say about her.

President Barack Obama described her as a remarkable woman with an extraordinary life. King Charles III, former Prince of Wales, said he was struck by the force of her personality and the quality of her intellect each time he met her. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called her a true African heroine. Ban Ki Moon, the former Secretary of the United Nations, described her as a global champion for human’s right and women’s empowerment. With all these descriptions, you certainly wonder who Wangari Maathai was, and what she did to merit such praises from the four corners of the world.

Professor Wangari Maathai with President Barack Obama

A Woman of Many Firsts

Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, on April 1st 1940. After completing her primary education in Kenya, she pursued a Bachelor of Science in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas which she completed in 1964. In 1966, she completed a Masters of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and went on to pursue doctoral studies in Germany and Kenya. In 1971, she obtained her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, making her the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. After graduation, she taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, and eventually became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976, and an associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Kenya to hold both positions.

In 1976, Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting to solve the worsening issue of deforestation that was threatening the livelihoods of rural populations who relied on agriculture. Several women from rural areas had been complaining of deteriorating environmental conditions which resulted in poor harvests and forced them to walk longer distances in search of firewood. Professor Maathai saw tree planting as a practical, holistic, and ecological way of addressing this issue. The trees will not only provide food, fodder and fuel, but their roots will also bind the soil, halt erosion, and absorb groundwater which will help replenish streams – all of which will enhance the livelihoods of rural communities. She developed this brilliant idea into a broad-based grassroots organization called the Green Belt Movement (GBM), where she mobilized thousands of men and women to plant trees. Till date, her movement has planted over 50 million trees throughout Kenya and other African countries.    

For Professor Maathai, the idea of tree-planting went beyond addressing an environmental issue alone, she saw this in a broader perspective, as a tool to enhance democracy, women’s rights, and international solidarity.  She used her movement as a springboard to fight against abuses of power such as land-grabbing, corruption, and misogyny. She used her voice and her activities to raise awareness on the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security. Her determination and activities soon brought her into direct conflict with the Kenyan government under the presidency of Daniel arap Moi. She was insulted, harassed, beaten, and even jailed. Despite facing regular opposition, she persevered in her engagement and succeeded in expanding the activities of GBM through the help of an impressive network of regional and international partners. Her remarkable contribution to democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation earned her several national and international recognitions. Most remarkably, the Nobel Peace Prize which she received in 2004 for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. This made Professor Wangari Maathai the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

wangari maathai first african woman nobel prize winner
Professor Wangari Maathai with the Nobel Peace Prize

“Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”

Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai’s Legacy

Over the years, up until her death in 2011 due to ovarian cancer, Wangari Maathai continued to advocate both in Kenya and around the world for action to be taken on climate change, environmental justice, forest conservation, good governance, democracy and women’s rights. She impacted the lives of many from all spheres of life: head of states and rural women, local communities and people across continents, people of diverse faith/religion. Many continue to be encouraged through her story to aspire to an idea bigger than their individual needs, and to aspire to be a force of change in their local communities. I invite you to check out her books and key speeches and articles to learn more about this true African Heroine!

“It doesn’t take a lot of people for real change to happen. At a time when so much seems to be going wrong, it is very easy to get overwhelmed. You don’t need an “army” of people. Each of us can be agents of change.”

Wangari Maathai

Learn more on Wangari Maathai

  • The Green Belt Movement:
  • The Wangari Maathai Foundation:
Leslie Fotso
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