Professor Wangari Maathai: A Legend, an Icon

In honor of Black History Month (February), the Involvement Newspaper will be featuring African leaders, heroes, and activists in a bid to remember their contributions towards a better Africa.

By: Nicholas Kweyu (

Thumbnail photo courtesy of

Professor Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1st 1940 in Nyeri. She went to Loreto High School and graduated in 1959. On a scholarship scheme known as the “Kennedy Airlift”, she went on to study biological sciences at the Benedictine College in Kansas. Following this, she got a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburg. Upon her return to a newly independent Kenya, she earned her PhD in 1971 from the University of Nairobi becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to attain a doctorate. She died in 2011 at the age of 71 following a long struggle with ovarian cancer.

The famous activist was involved in humanitarian and environmental groups such as the National Council of Women of Kenya which she joined in 1976. Here, she interacted with rural women who lamented on the social and environmental conditions affecting poorer Kenyans. She developed a community-based tree planting scheme that grew into the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977. This movement has facilitated the planting of more than 51 million trees in Kenya. The GBM also works towards poverty reduction as it trains women in skills such as beekeeping and forestry; the preservation of land is therefore accompanied by a source of income. The movement’s activism spurred similar initiatives in other African countries including Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Another of the professor’s contributions to environmental conservation was her adamant resistance to government plans to erect a 62-story skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park in the 1980s. This saw her get beaten, tear-gassed and thrown into then-President Daniel Arap Moi’s notorious underground cells.
“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do,” she once said.

Wangari Maathai protesting against a skyscrapper being built in Uhuru park. Photo courtesy of

This was only one of several instances of the humanitarian’s challenging of President Moi. She was among those who championed a multi-party system and democracy in the backdrop of Moi’s dictatorial rule. She also, at the risk of her life, consistently spoke out about human rights injustices perpetrated by Moi’s government; with the help of Bishop Ndingi Mwana a’ Nzeki, she even disguised herself during a government crackdown on human rights activists to deliver a speech on the injustices of the Rift Valley conflicts in the 1990s. Wangari Maathai also participated in a hunger strike to pressure the government to release political prisoners.

Her tremendous efforts resulted in her being the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Later in 2009, she was named the United Nations Messenger of Peace in recognition of her deep commitment to the environment.

To this day, we celebrate Wangari Maathai Day- renamed from Africa Environment day in 2012- every 3rd of March which focuses on celebrating Wangari Maathai’s commitment to environmental responsibility, peace and justice.

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