Wangari Maathai: Planting for Peace

Each of us can make a difference, and together accomplish what might seem impossible.”- Wangari Maathai

Early Life & Education of Maathai

Wangari Maathai was born on April 1st, 1940, in a small village called Nyeri, Kenya. Her father provided for the family as a tenant farmer and decided very early on that he would send Wangari to school. The environmental activist started at a local primary school when she was only 8. It was very uncommon for young women to receive an education at the time, but this did not stop Maathai from becoming an excellent student. It was because of her success in studying that she was able to continue her education at the Loreto Girls’ Highschool, and later receive a scholarship to attend college in the United States. She was only 20-years old when she left for the states, and when she came back, she had earned both a bachelor’s degree in biology (Mount St. Scholastica College, 1964) and her master’s in biological sciences (University of Pittsburgh, 1966). She returned to Kenya and continued her studies at the University of Nairobi, where she focused on veterinary anatomy. In 1971 she graduated from here, becoming the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree.

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, said Maathai would be remembered as a champion of “the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights, and democracy.

The Inspiring Accomplishments of Maathai

Maathai was an environmental visionary, and single-handedly responsible for saving the African Rainforest. In the 1980s, utilizing tactics from the civil war protests, Maathai led hundreds of mostly women to protest government plans to pave over Uhuru Park and erect a 62-story headquarters for the then-ruling Kenya African National Union party. “Uhuru” means “freedom” in Kiswahili, and without Maathai‘s bravery and willingness to fight for what she believes in, this park would have been anything but. Her campaign saw her tear-gassed, beaten, and arrested, but it earned Nairobi an oasis of green. It was because of this selfless act that Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 (not to mention she was the first African woman to receive it – Woo!)

She was a lady before her time, talking of how the destruction of natural resources was a sign of something wrong in government, in the democratic process, and a threat to the security and peace of people all over the world,” says Edward Wageni, deputy executive director of the Green Belt Movement.

The Green Belt Movement

Maathai, or Mama Wangari as she is known to Kenyans, was a Chairman for the National Council of Women from 1981-1987. It was here that she first introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. As she did with most things, Maathai ran with this and founded The Green Belt Movement. A Movement dedicated to poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. Together, she, and a plethora of Kenyan civic activists, planted over 51-million trees. Both saving the African rainforest and leaving a legacy that will not soon be forgotten. Maathai passed away on September 25th, 2011 at the age of 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. Memorial ceremonies were held for her in Kenya, New York, San Francisco, and London.

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Written by: Brittany Love


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