Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize died on Sunday in a hospital in Nairobi. Maathai was an inspiring figure; a social activist and environmental campaigner and a relentless advocate of the struggles of women in rural Kenya.
Born in Nyeri in the Central Kenyan highlands in 1940 at a time when female access to education remained non-universal, Maathai graduated high school in 1959 and the following year won a scholarship to study in the U.S. where she completed a BA in Biological Sciences. She completed a Master’s at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 and then returned home to Kenya to join the School of Veterinary Medicine at Nairobi University. In 1971 she gained a PhD, the first woman ever to do so in east and central Africa.
In the 1970’s Maathai became aware of the environmental changes which were seriously affecting rural Kenyans, and particularly women. Firewood was becoming scare, as was water and high nutrition food. In response to these problems Maathai set up the ‘Green Belt Movement’ proposing that planting trees could provide fuel as well as stabilising soil and providing the right environment for sustainable agriculture. Since the GBM was set up in 1971 its members have planted over 43 million trees.1
As the work of the movement expanded it was realised that the issues in rural Kenya were part and parcel of wider currents of disenfranchisement, bad governance and corruption, and in the 1980’s and 1990’s under Maathai’s guidance the GBM joined other pro-democracy advocates in underlining the abuses of the corrupt, authoritarian regime of Daniel Arap Moi. In response Moi’s government repeatedly arrested Maathai and other activists using violence and intimidation against them and attempting to vilify them in the media. Maathai’s refusal to bow to government attacks earned her a position as ‘one of the best known and most respected women in Kenya.’2 She also gained international recognition for her courage and integrity and her advocation of the green movement.
In the 2000’s Maathai served briefly as an MP in Mwai Kibaki’s government bringing the GBM’s ideals of grassroots empowerment to her Tetu constituency. In 2007, she acted as mediator following the post-election violence which shocked Kenya and called for peace, accountability and justice. In recent years, Maathai had also been playing a crucial role in the international movement to address climate change.
Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work in sustainable development, democracy and peace.
Praise for her book, The Challenge for Africa (2009):
‘Like a Nelson Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi, Maathai stands way above most mortals.’ The Guardian
‘Wangari Maathai is a prophet for out time.’ Alexandra Fuller
‘Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement demonstrate the solutions that will bring new light to Africa.’ Nelson Mandela
By Aidan Stonehouse