Wangari Maathai: Environmental Warrior

And to finish our first week, we have yet another informative article ready for you! 📝

This one is about Wangari Maathai, she not only tried everything to improve the world for women, environment and many more, but she also received the Nobel Peace Prize as a recognition for all of her hard work. 🏆🌿

Wangari Maathai | *01-04-1940 | † 25-09-2011 | Kenya | Politician, Scientist, Founder and Author

To Wangari Maathai, the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, was nothing but proof that her accomplishments were noted and appreciated by the world, whereas her one true goal always remained to be ‘’to contribute to sustainable development, democracy and peace’’. 

Wangari Maathai was no extraordinary woman receiving a magical opportunity to dedicate herself for the greater good. She was just a girl, born in a rural town called Nyeri, Kenya. The one privilege she received, was the ability to finish primary school and therefore continue studying at the University of Pittsburgh in 1964. Here, she graduated with ease in Biology Science which was her first main accomplishment: she was the first Eastern-African woman to graduate from university at all.

Her next goal was to share her knowledge with other Africans, so more people would start believing in themselves and reconsider their future goals. Therefore, she started teaching at the University of Nairobi in 1971, where her second accomplishment was the becoming of a chair in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. Besides this, Maathai’s strong dedication to using her knowledge for the greater good by educating other people, served also for convincing those who received education to reconsider their approach regarding the environment.

To do so, she started a movement called ‘The Green Belt Movement’ with the National Council of Women of Kenya, of which she was a loyal member. For this group, it was key to discuss the environmental conditions and mainly the deterioration of those. With her movement, she wanted to fight consequences such as drought, failed harvesting and therefore the extreme effort women had to put into the maintenance of their daily tasks, as those responsible for the well-being of large families.

The solution was clear: the mobilizing of thousands of people could be achieved by planting millions and millions of trees throughout Kenya. Maathai always preferred the rather holistic and mainly ecological approach: the tree roots would bound the soil, preventing erosion and retaining the groundwater consisting out of the low, precious rainfall. The outcome would be the replenishing of streams, with the trees as their steady, durable sources to support the quality of the life of the rural residents. 

Several years later, Maathai realized the threat she seemed to pose to several land owners, by claiming public land for her conservation project and immediately desired an approach where no ‘bad blood’ would appear between her and anyone involved in her project, whether directly or indirect. Yet, this was unavoidable. A conflict between her and the Kenyan government appeared and led to Maathai being harassed, threatened, beaten and even jailed. Despite these events, Maathai never stopped persevering her need to transform the African environment for a more sustainable, human-friendly outcome.

The recognition for her deeds, despite governmental resistance, rose only higher as Maathai continued working as a member of the parliament, in the role of assistant minister for the environment. Next to her fulltime job, she also dedicated herself to women’s rights and community-based equity where she tirelessly fought corruption, the stealing of land by those owning the money and lack of attention for female rights. 

Examples of her actions were planting trees where there was a demand due to deforestation, educating communities to both recognize and fight corruption, and helping rural communities preserve a nature-based future. Besides this, she inspired women around the world to get educated and to not be demotivated by the many negative voices discouraging their dreams.  

Finally in 2004, the government had to reconsider their somewhat hostile relationship with a woman who received increasing appreciation on a global scale and with that, improved the image of a country with a damaged reputation due to its poverty and corruption. Maathai continued to travel the world to campaign for climate change, environmental justice, forest preservation, fair governance, a true democracy, and women’s rights. Doing so, she managed to convince many women, governments, religions and rural communities around the entire world. 

When eventually in 2004, 40 years after working tirelessly to create a better planet, the appreciation reached a highpoint: she won the Nobel Peace Prize for being the most active politician, scientist and woman working on peace for both the environment as well as humans. Being the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize she inspired many around the world with a dream they did not yet dare to live.

Maathai was a pure example of a single woman, beaten down by the world, that changed the world with her voice alone. She unfortunately died at the age of 71 in 2011 due to complications caused by her cancer treatment. Her legacy remains incomplete still as she stood for so much more than mentioned in this article, because she changed thousands of lives. She is an example of a woman thinking globally, yet acting locally. Her values contaminated those around her and still inspire many to think bigger, to believe in their ability to accomplish anything and be the difference they want to be in the world – despite origin, resources or income: YOU ARE THE CHANGE. 


Author: Annemay Hogeling
Image: Laurel Maryland

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