by Radiyah Shakur
One of the most important women of the 21st Century, Wangari Maathai is a true role model who has affected enormous change through her grassroots initiative.
By focusing on local problems she saw affecting rural women in Kenya, combined with vast environmental degradation, Maathai launched the Greenbelt Movement (GBM) in 1977. Through the GBM, Wangari Maathai has helped mostly village women in Kenya plant over 30 million trees on their farms, schools and church compounds, protecting their environment while simultaneously gaining paid employment to improve their quality of life. In 1987, a Pan-African Greenbelt Network was established, promoting the GBM’s community empowerment and conservation approach. In 2004, Maathai became the first woman from Africa to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, ‘’for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace’’ and years of work with women to reverse African deforestation.
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. Credited as the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai received undergraduate degrees from Mt St. Scholastica College in Kansas, USA in 1964 and the University of Pittsburg in 1966. She spent some time in Germany for her doctoral studies, and then returned to Kenya to complete her PhD in Anatomy in 1971 from the University of Nairobi. Maathai worked as a professor at the same university and became Chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor on year later- both accomplishments were unprecedented achievements for a Kenyan woman.
While active with the National Council of Women from 1976-1987, Maathai was first introduced to the idea of ordinary people planting trees. She then decided to further develop the idea and test it as a grassroots operation, which led to the birth of the Greenbelt Movement. Maathai was a vocal opponent to the then governments’ appropriation of land, and as a result became their adversary.
In December 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to Parliament, as Mwai Kibabi defeated Maathai's long-time political nemesis, Daniel arap Moi who presided over Kenya for 24 years. Kibabi named Maathai as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January, 2003.
To date, initiatives have been successfully launched in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, among others. Prof. Maathai has received numerous awards honouring her environmental and leadership achievements. She has also received doctoral degrees from several institutions around the world.