Wangari Muta Maathai
2004 Nobel Laureate, Founder of the Green Belt Movement, environmentalist and activist for social change
“It is the people who must make their leaders change so we must stand up for what we believe in.”
Wangari Muta Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in the small rural town of Nyeri, Kenya. During her long life, she was a tireless activist for social change and environmental responsibility. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace”. She was internationally recognized as the first black woman and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. She passed away on September 25, 2011 at the age of 71 after a lifetime of hard earned achievements, including many firsts for women, that created lasting change in the world.
Her future of promoting positive change in the world may have gotten its foothold in 1960, after she was awarded a scholarship which allowed her to attend college in the United States. She obtained a Bachelors Degree in Biological Science from Mount. St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas in 1964 and then a Masters Degree in Biological Science from the University of Pittsburg in 1966. She returned to Kenya where she attended the University of Nairobi and obtained her PhD in Biology in 1971 to become the first woman from East and Central Africa to obtain a doctorate degree. Then, from 1976 through 1977, she was hired as an associate professor at the University of Nairobi becoming the first female professor from her home country of Kenya.
Professor Maathai choice to major in biological science likely stemmed from her close relationship with nature as a child. In her book, Unbowed: A Memoir, she discusses happy childhood memories of growing up playing under a large fig tree and trying to scoop up in her hands the lovely frog eggs she mistook for beads in the stream near her home. The later destruction of that fig tree which caused the stream she played in to dry up and her beloved frogs to disappear may have been one of the flames that ignited her passion to promote the deep connection she saw between the environment and human survival and social stability. She stated in an interview that “children of the concrete jungle” in the cities know only to buy food from grocery stores. They don’t know to respect nature as the actual source of the food they eat. “Children of the soil” like herself who are “part and parcel of nature” know where their food comes from and they learn respect for the environment. She went on to state that without clean air, water, and soil, humans cannot survive.
“The generation that facilitates or is responsible for the environmental degradation is not the one that pays the price.”
In 1977, in an effort to protect the environment and to promote social change, Professor Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement. At the time, she was working with the National Council of Women of Kenya to address the needs of rural Kenyan women. Through her outreach to the local people, she was made aware of the economic devastation that was occurring due to mass deforestation by industry. Without trees, the water sources were drying up and firewood became a scarce commodity. This was especially hard on local women who relied on the environment for food, water, and firewood to support their families. The Green Belt Movement helped local women, who in turn encouraged others, to grow and plant trees in order to restore the environment and economic stability to the area. The Green Belt Movement also provided the women with a small amount of money for their work which aided in providing more economic independence for the women who participated. According to The Green Belt Movement website, it is “an environmental organization that promotes conservation of the environment through planting trees which improves the economic power and viability of communities.” To date, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 35 million trees.
During this time, Professor Maathai and others came to realize that what was causing these hardships for the people and the environment “were deeper issues of disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of the traditional values” that had for generations allowed the people to live in harmony with each other and their environment. Professor Maathai was not shy about voicing her opinion and when she participated in a protest in opposition to the government, she was severely beaten and injured. According to Biography.com she would later state, “Nobody would have bothered me if all I did was to encourage women to plant trees, but I started seeing the linkages between the problems that we were dealing with and the root causes of environmental degradation. And one of those root causes was misgovernance.” Accordingly, the Green Belt Movement later created an educational program, called Community Empowerment and Education seminars, which promotes democracy by encouraging people to question why their voices are not being heard in relation to political, economic, and environmental circumstances.
“Everyone of us everyday of our lives either conduct ourselves in a way that promotes peace or in a way that invites conflict.”
Professor Maathai was very vocal for the rest of her life about her passions for the environment and democracy. She went on to hold many important roles through which she could raise awareness and contribute to change. In Kenya, after Moi’s political party lost control in 2002, Professor Maathai became a member of Kenya’s Parliament. From 2002 through 2007 she held such important positions in Parliament as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources and the Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. In 2009, the United Nations Secretary General named Professor Maathai a United Nations Messenger of Peace which served as yet another platform for her to voice her position on the environment and climate change.
Professor Wangari Muta Maathai was passionate about the environment and social justice right up to the end when ovarian cancer took her life in 2011. After her death, memorial ceremonies were held in Kenya, New York, San Francisco, and London to honor this beautiful unstoppable woman whose intelligence, courage, empathy, and persistence helped create lasting change on the issues of environmental responsibility and social justice. But perhaps more importantly, she helped change attitudes toward women and their potential to contribute to lasting change that will make this world a better place for us all.
Excerpt from the next article:
Women That Helped Change The World, The Series: Audrey Hepburn, Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF
Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF
“I can testify to what UNICEF means to children, because I was among those who received food and medical relief right after World War II…”
Audrey Hepburn is most known for her acting, with such notable movies as My Fair Lady and Breakfast at Tiffany’s on her resumé. But, this accomplished actress was at one time a child who experienced the devastation of World War II first hand. She grew up to work with the very organization that came to her aid as a child after WWII, The United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF). She worked as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF to aid children just like herself. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George H.W. Bush for her work with UNICEF. Then, in 2002, a statue of Ms. Hepburn called “The Spirit of Audrey” was unveiled at the UNICEF headquarters in New York City. It was dedicated to her posthumously in recognition of her work with children through UNICEF.