Kenya’s Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace in 2014.
Maathai was the founder of Green Belt Movement that contributed to plantation of over three crore trees in Africa. She was the first woman to get a doctoral degree in East and Central Africa. Her book “The Challenge for Africa” highlights the challenges of sustainable governance in Africa.
Wangari Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her initiative to plant trees in Kenya to counter the ongoing deforestation which later became the famous Green Belt movement. Led by African women, the movement was spread across several African countries and contributed to planting over three crore trees.
She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree and looked at tree plantation as a means to empower women, reignite democratic ethos, and gain international solidarity.
Early Life and Education
Born in Nyeri village in Kenya in 1940, her father was a poor tenant farmer. In those days not many girl children went to school. But her parents decided otherwise. She started her primary education when she was 8-year-old. Despite starting late, she was able to pick up things quickly and went on to complete her high school.
Wangari Maathai won a scholarship for higher studies and went to the United States for pursuing Bachelor’s Degree in Biology. From then on she never turned back. She completed her graduation in 1964 and then went to complete her Master’s Degree in 1966 from the University of Kansas and then her PhD in 1971 from the University of Nairobi.
After completing her PhD she became the senior lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy in 1975 and then went on to led the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977 at the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in Nairobi to be appointed to any of these positions.
In 1976, when Wangari Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya, she started the initiative to plant saplings along with people. She cultivated an organisation at the grassroots level that was focused on planting trees. This later transformed into a larger Green Belt Movement that helped women plant trees not only in Kenya but in countries across the African continent.
Wangari Maathai’s Movements
Maathai opposed Daniel Arap Moi’s development plans that posed a threat to the trees. Her most notable protest was in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in 1989 where she opposed the construction of a skyscraper. The project was eventually cancelled and the place in the park where she protested is now known as Freedom Corner.
In September 1998, she had launched a campaign seeking cancellation of the backlog debts of the poor countries in Africa by the year 2000. In 2002 she became a Member of the Kenyan Parliament.
Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” in 2004.
In her Nobel acceptance speech, she said, “There can be no peace without equitable development, and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space.”
In 2006, she came out with her autobiography, ‘Unbowed’. In 2009, she shared her views on the challenges African nations face in sustainable governance and how they can be overcome in her book ‘The Challenge for Africa’.
On September 25, 2011, she died at the age of 71 after fighting a long battle with ovarian cancer.