Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)

Wangari Maathai (Portrait by Martin Rowe via Wikimedia Commons)

On Sunday 25 September 2011, Kenya and Africa lost a true leader and visionary. For those of you who don’t know, Wangari Maathai was a “Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize”(#1) for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. That sounds so simple: plant some trees, win a Nobel Prize. But there is a lot that happened before that Nobel Prize.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children’s education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.

From Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.

There has been a lot written about her since she won the Nobel Peace Prize, and a lot more since she died last weekend.  Wikipedia has a comprehensive article about her here, and the New York Times printed this article/obituary after her death. I’m not going to repeat what has already been written, except to point out some highlights and give you some food for thought.

My inspiration partly comes from my childhood experiences and observations of Nature in rural Kenya. It has been influenced and nurtured by the formal education I was privileged to receive in Kenya, the United States and Germany. As I was growing up, I witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed local biodiversity and the capacity of the forests to conserve water.

From Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.

Think about an African woman, born into a patriarchal society, in a village in Kenya.  For most the result would be a life of poverty and hardship. Of struggling through each day, hardly being able to cope with your own life, let alone have the energy and resources to help others. For Wangari Maathai a couple of timely opportunities, and her intellect and willingness to study hard, took her much further. At the age of eleven, she went to a Catholic mission school. This not only provided her with a solid basic education, but sheltered her from the violence and upheaval of the Mau Mau uprisings. Later because of her academic achievements, she was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya. At that stage the mission and church schools in Africa, provided the best education available to children – and often a way out of the cycle of poverty. Then came another “lucky break”.  “John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of about three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities in September 1960.“(#2) What followed was a Bachelor of Science degree (majoring in Biology), a Masters Degree in Biological Sciences, and a Doctorate in Veterinary Anatomy (completed in Kenya).

For most people, getting a good education is followed by getting a good job and living a good life. Improving living standards for yourself and your family. Wangari Maathai, had a much more significant vision for the future. After her studies in the United States and Germany, she returned to Kenya. Here she founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. In choosing a life of social/political and environmental activism, she didn’t choose an easy life. She chose what she had been taught back at school, that is:  “to serve God by serving fellow human beings”. She fought against opposition and had to deal with controversy. I can imagine that her work impacted on her personal life, and on her family.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

From Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.

So often comments are made about Africa being this endless sink for humanitarian aid from First World countries. Wangari Maathai is proof that an African-born person, given the necessary educational opportunities, can make a huge difference on this continent. Africa needs more men and women like her to get those same opportunities.

There are a lot more details of her achievements in the two articles I’ve given as references at the bottom of this post. I really encourage you to read them, so you get a better sense of the enormity of her contribution to Africa and the environment.

The full text of Wangari Maathai’s Nobel Lecture can be read here.


#1: New York Times: Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71

#2: Wikipedia: Wangari Maathai


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I live on the Southern coast of South Africa, and write about the things that interest, amuse or inspire me. You can find me at and (my photoblog)


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14 Comments on “Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)”

  1. GeoRoMancer
    September 29, 2011 at 1:35 pm #

    interesting – had never heard of her.

  2. September 29, 2011 at 3:11 pm #

    What an amazing woman!

    I’m beginning to understand more and more that the dumping of foreign aid by the first world is so not the answer–empowering people to change their own lives and giving them the tools necessary to do it matter so much more.

    I’m reading a book right now by Vikram Akula called “A Fistful of Rice: My Unexpected Quest to End Poverty through Profitability.” I highly recommend it.

    Great post, Lisa. I sorry to know she died, but grateful for your sharing a bit about her.


    • September 30, 2011 at 7:48 am #

      Thanks Kathy! Yes, she was an amazing woman – truly visionary. I agree with you about foreign aid. Her story illustrates once again that giving people an education is possibly one of the most valuable things you can do for them.

  3. Estie
    September 29, 2011 at 8:49 pm #

    I teach my gr 11’s about her great work and is sad to hear that she died. Amazing woman. Just shows that each one of us can make a difference and do not have to wait for someone to start.

    • September 30, 2011 at 7:53 am #

      That is wonderful to hear! I find her story totally inspiring. Young people in South Africa and in the rest of Africa need to be inspired to think big. And to realize that with a good education, they can do anything they put their minds to.

  4. jacquelincangro
    September 30, 2011 at 3:01 am #

    Lisa, thank you so much for sharing the accomplishments of Wangari Maathai. What a difference she has made in the lives of so many Kenyan women. IT just proves that one person can start a change in the world. She is Shine-worthy!
    I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to check out my Shine posts on my blog, but I love to feature people like her!

    • September 30, 2011 at 7:56 am #

      I am glad that you enjoyed the post. Wangari Maathai was an inspired and inspiring woman. Kenya (and Africa as a whole) should be grateful that she got the educational opportunities that she did, and that she returned to Kenya to make a difference.

      I think your Shine series is great! I always find it so uplifting to read the stories.

  5. Sarita Botha
    September 30, 2011 at 8:12 am #

    She was an amazing woman!

  6. September 30, 2011 at 10:00 am #

    Sometimes I think you can just see the goodness in peoples eyes – I love this picture of her – RIP Wangari Maathai

    • September 30, 2011 at 10:27 am #

      You’re right about that, Jackie. She has a lovely open and joyful face, and laughter in her eyes. I can just imagine her inspiring others.

  7. October 3, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    I just recently bought her biography. What an impressive, inspiring woman.

    • October 3, 2011 at 3:34 pm #

      Very true! I am glad that in her lifetime, her work got the recognition it so deserved.

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