International Women’s Day: the Work of Wangari Maathai
This International Women’s Day, we’d like to highlight the work of an important environmental activist and Nobel laureate – Wangari Maathai.
Maathai was born in Kenya in 1940, and studied in Kenya, Germany, and the United States (in fact, she attended the University of Pittsburgh!). She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi in 1976 and an associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in the region to achieve either position.
Maathai is the founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), based out of the idea of community-based tree planting she proposed while serving on the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). On World Environment day (June 5, 1977), the NCWK planted seven trees on the outskirts of Nairobi, marking the first “Green Belt.” Maathai continued to encourage women to plant tree nurseries throughout the country.
Maathai coordinated the GBM with funding help from the Norwegian Forestry Society. She also received funding from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women that enabled the GBM to expand, hire more employees, and pay a small stipend to those who planted trees.
The Green Belt Movement grew outside Kenya in 1986, expanding throughout Africa. Fifteen nations sent representatives to Kenya to learn how to build similar programs in their own countries. The GBM became its own organization separate from NCWK in 1987.
Maathai continued to be an activist for the environment, sometimes at the displeasure of the government. Her protests were often peaceful and included tree plantings. In 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. She founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya, providing candidates the chance to run on a platform of conservation.
In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” She was the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
In addition to her many other awards, the University of Nairobi now has the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace & Environmental Studies. The Wangari Maathai Foundation was established in 2015 to further her vision and legacy.
You can read more about this trailblazing forestry and environmental pioneer on the Green Belt Movement website. You can also watch the documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai.