Also known as: Wangari Muta Maathai
Birth: April 1, 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya
Occupation: Environmental Activist, Activist, Veterinarian, Zoologist, Biologist, Scientist, Educator, Administrator
Source: African Biography. 3 vols. U*X*L, 1999.
"African women in general need to know that it's OK for them to be the way they are—to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence."
"To make Kenya green again" is the objective of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, founded by Wangari Muta Maathai (pronounced MATH-eye) in 1977. Since then Maathai has become internationally known as an environmentalist and has received many awards and honors for her work. (An environmentalist is someone who is concerned with preserving and protecting nature.) At home she is controversial. The former president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, once called her a "mad woman" and "a threat to the order and security of the country." A member of parliament even threatened her with physical violence if she came into his electoral district. But in 2002, the year Moi was forced to step down, Matthai was elected to the Kenyan parliament. Her activism in defense of democracy, the environment, and the poor of Africa won her the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai has provoked the president and the parliamentarians because she has gone beyond the boundaries set by tradition for a Kenyan woman. Not only is she intelligent, highly educated, and outspoken, she has publicly challenged the government on its human rights abuses and insensitivity to the poor. In addition, she personally challenged the ruling political party when she prevented construction of an office tower in a Nairobi public park.
Basing her program on the simple idea of tree planting, Maathai has found a solution for many environmental and humanitarian problems in eastern Africa. Called the Green Belt Movement, it encourages people in rural areas to plant trees. Since it began in 1977, the 50,000 people involved in the effort have planted an estimated 10 million trees. The trees provide people with firewood for cooking and prevent soil erosion or loss, which eventually turns productive areas into deserts.
Wangari Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, a rich agricultural area in the so-called "White Highlands" of Kenya. As the oldest daughter of Kikuyu farmers, Maathai would traditionally have been assigned many of the chores in her family's rural household. But Maathai's older brother convinced their parents that she should be allowed to attend school. She went to the Loreto Limuru School for girls and in 1960 won a scholarship to study in the United States. Maathai graduated from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas with a bachelor of science degree in biology in 1964. She earned a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in 1965.
When Maathai returned to Kenya in 1966, the University of Nairobi hired her as a research associate in the Department of Veterinary Medicine. At that time, few women held such jobs in Kenya. Women were expected to be submissive (to yield to authority) and not seek higher education or employment. Maathai's male colleagues did not believe she was qualified to work in a university department. Slowly, though, she overcame the obstacles, and by 1971 she had earned a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Nairobi. Continuing at the university, she went on to become a lecturer, then an assistant professor, and finally head of the faculty of veterinary medicine. She was the first woman ever to reach such a level of authority at the university.
Maathai became involved in environmental and humanitarian topics when her husband, a Nairobi businessman, ran for a seat in the Kenyan parliament in the early 1970s. While helping with his campaign, Maathai became aware of the poverty and unemployment that affected many people in the capital city of Nairobi. Her husband made a campaign promise to create more jobs for the city's poor. After he won the election, Maathai began working on the problem of putting people to work. She opened an agency that paid poor people to plant trees and shrubs. Although the original company went out of business, Maathai did not abandon her plan. In 1977 she took the idea to a women's group called the National Council of Women of Kenya. With the group's support, Maathai turned her idea into a nationwide grass-roots (operated by people at the local level) organization known as the Green Belt Movement.
Maathai based her organization on the idea that the quality of the natural environment was closely related to the quality of life of the people living in that environment. Trees, for example, play a key role in the lives of many Africans. Ninety percent of the African population depends on wood as a cooking fuel. Because so many trees in Kenya had been cut down for fuel or for making charcoal, women found it increasingly difficult to get enough wood for their various domestic needs. As a result, they had to walk longer distances to find new supplies. So even though food was available, the shortage of fuel meant that women could not cook enough food to satisfy their families' needs. Because of this, nutritional problems developed.
By offering free seedlings for communities to plant and tend, the Green Belt Movement helped local people reforest their land. The movement paid workers a small amount for every tree they planted and preserved for more than three months. Maathai's efforts to fight the deforestation of Kenya have been successful over the years, resulting in the planting of more than 10 million native trees such as acacias, cedars, baobabs, and cotton trees. The Green Belt Movement has also employed about 50,000 workers.
Maathai's crusade has gained worldwide attention. About a dozen other African countries modeled similar programs after it. The United Nations and several European countries have contributed financial support for Maathai's work. In 1988 Maathai published a small book called The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience. She has been honored for her efforts. Her awards include the 1984 Right Livelihood Award, the 1989 Windstar Award for the Environment, the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize of 1991, the 1991 Africa Prize for Leadership, and the 1993 Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award.
In a reflective mood about her struggles against the authorities, she was quoted as saying: "I believe that I was on the right path all along, particularly with the Green Belt Movement, but then others told me that I shouldn't have a career, that I shouldn't raise my voice, that women are supposed to have a master. That I needed to be someone else. Finally I was able to see that if I have a contribution I wanted to make, I must do it, despite what others said. That I was OK the way I was. That it was all right to be strong. African women in general need to know that it's OK for them to be the way they are--to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence."
Maathai's involvement with political issues and her refusal to accept the traditional role of Kenyan women created conflict both in her personal and public life. Unhappy with her high-profile position, Maathai's husband, with whom she had three children, divorced her in the early 1980s. In 1989 Maathai angered political leaders when she led an environmental campaign to stop construction of an office building in Uhuru Park, one of the few natural areas in Nairobi. Sneeringly referred to as the Tower of Babel, the proposed 60-story skyscraper would have housed the offices of Kenya's ruling political party. She asked the government in public, "We can provide parks for rhino and elephants, why can't we provide open spaces for the people? Why are we creating environmental havoc in urban areas?" The publicity of Maathai's fight caused foreign investors to pull out of the project, saving the park for Nairobi's citizens.
Displeased government officials--unaccustomed to being challenged--started speaking out against Maathai and her Green Belt Movement. They eventually forced the organization to leave its office in a government-owned building and to move to her home. Determined to fight for changes in Kenya's political system (in which one party dominates the government) and to protect citizens from abuses by the government, Maathai joined the Release Political Prisoners in their 1992 Mother's Hunger Strike. Maathai and many others were hospitalized after the police physically attacked them. The strikers were successful, though, for when the strike ended the government released 50 of the 51 political prisoners. In 1993 Maathai formed the Tribal Clashes Resettlement Volunteer Service (TCRVS) to help victims of state-sponsored political violence in the Rift Valley (a province of western Kenya). The government accused her of stirring up the violence and sent the police to disrupt her organization's public meetings.
Despite government opposition, however, Maathai continued her work for Green Belt and gave lectures about her environmental work around the world. Her message about the connection between people and their environment remained the same over the years, and she firmly believed that the efforts of one person could make a difference. "The Green Belt Movement is about hope," Maathai said in a 1992 Chicago Tribune article. "It tells people they are responsible for their own lives.... It raises an awareness that people can take control of their environment, which is the first step toward greater participation in society."
In 1997, Maathai announced her intention to run for the presidency of Kenya. In a statement faxed to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, she stated that those who opposed Kenya's leadership under President Daniel arap Moi and the KANU party were "threatened with defeat, humiliation and continued exploitation by corrupt and nonaccountable leaders." She stressed that leaders must be held accountable to the people of Kenya. One part of her solution to the ills of poverty, human rights abuses, disease, and corruption in Kenya was a return to African tradition. "The revival of culture and some age-old values have been discovered as being central to this process," she said. She argued that people must come first and that leaders must create an "enabling political environment to facilitate development" for everyone, particularly ordinary Kenyans.
As if her life was not complicated enough, Maathai decided to challenge the system once more by running for the Kenyan presidency in 1997. She declared that she was running for both the parliament and the presidency as part of the Liberal Party of Kenya (LPK). She denounced the current corruption in the government, and urged that the time had come to restore Kenyan people's dignity, self respect, and human rights. The government that she proposed was a people centered operation, or an "enabling political environment to facilitate development." Central to her vision was a Kenyan society where people acknowledged their cultural and spiritual background as they participated in government.
However, Maathai did not announce her intentions until a month before the election and released no party manifesto prior to the election, claiming that the Green Belt Movement would provide the direction for her platform. A few days prior to the December 1997 election, the LPK leaders withdrew Maathai's candidacy without notifying her. Her bid for a Parliament seat was also defeated in the election; she came in third. Moi again emerged as the presidential victor.
In 1998 Maathai got involved in another worthy cause, chairing the Jubilee Africa Campaign in Kenya, which sought cancellation of foreign debt by poor countries of Africa by year 2000. Many poor governments take on huge loans usually geared for specific projects, but oftentimes because of mismanagement and embezzlement the projects are not completed and the citizens are shortchanged. In her acceptance speech at the 1991 laureate of the Africa Prize Leadership Maathai asked, "Why are the hungry masses forced to repay loans they never received and debts they never incurred? These repayments have become very heavy burdens, impoverishing them, driving them to slums, and creating internal conflicts. They are killing [the poor], through increasing poverty."
In January of 1999, Matthai was hospitalized for a head wound and concussion she suffered during a government-arranged attack while she and some supporters were planting trees in the Karura Public Forest in Nairobi. The plantings were part of a protest against the land being approved for clearing and development. She immediately reported the incident to Amnesty International and other agencies, which publicized it through the world media as Matthai lay in her hospital bed. Accustomed to such treatment, however, Matthai continued her environmental campaign undaunted.
In 2001, the Green Belt Movement filed suit to prevent a forest clearance project by the Kenya government that included a plan to clear 69,000 hectares of woodland to house homeless squatters. Maathai believed that it was the government's deliberate ploy to gain support in the coming elections. Planet Ark.com reported that she commented, "It's a matter of life and death for this country. We are extremely worried. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem."
Maathai's future plans include another worthy cause: she hopes to establish a center to house battered women and children. This is an enormous undertaking that will require a lot of support, education, and resources. Many African men will need to be persuaded as they might see this as an intrusion into their culture. Oftentimes they treat women as personal property, especially among those who have paid exorbitant amounts of money for the bride price. Successful programs in Europe and the United States include components for counseling both the victims and the perpetrators. Many Africans will have to change their mind-set and treat men who abuse women and children as law-breakers. On the other hand, African women should not be content to remain as victims; they should be aware that they have choices and human rights.
Kenya's long struggle toward greater democracy culminated in 2002, when Moi left office because a constitutional ban prevented him from seeking reelection. In elections that year, Maathai was elected a member of parliament. She was appointed Deputy Minister of the Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife. Now as she serves as a lawmaker, she is in a good position to support or enact laws that will protect women's rights as human rights. She also began an appointment as the fifth McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation at Yale University's prestigious Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry, where she co-taught a course titled "Environment and Livelihoods: Governance, Donors, and Debt."
Such commitment has earned Maathai many accolades and acclaim. Among the many prizes and recognitions bestowed upon her is the 1991 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most prestigious in the world. She received the Edinburgh Medal in 1993, and in 1997, she was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 persons in the world who have made a difference in the field of environmentalism. On March 30, 2004, Maathai won the 2004 Sophie Prize, founded by Norwegian writers Jostein Gaardner and Siri Dannevig. The $100,000 award recognized Maathai's work on environmental issues.
These awards culminated in 2004, when Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever given to an African woman. She was honored for aiding democracy and attempting to save Africa's forests. At the ceremony, Maathai stated, according to CNN.com, "The environment is very important in the aspects of peace because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that. I am working to make sure we don't only protect the environment, we also improve governance."
In 2006, she and four other women launched the Women's Nobel Peace Laureates Initiative, which will promote women's rights and peace initiatives by women worldwide. According to the Mail & Guardian, the money that goes with the Nobel Peace Prize received a lot of attention from the Kenyan media. After being asked frequently about what she planned to do with the money--and giving the standard answer, about funding environmental programs--Maathai finally declared, "I could indulge, yes, but how many cups of tea can I drink?"