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Wangari Maathai – First African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize

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Wangari Maathai was among the most influential female leaders in the world. She was born in 1940 in Kenya, the first East and Central Asian woman to receive a PhD. She was the first head of department at the University of Nairobi in Kenya and, more important, the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She has won numerous awards for her work and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. Maathai was elected as a member of Parliament and Assistant Minister of Environment and Natural Resources for the period 2003 to 2005. She was an honorary councilor of the World Future Council. As an academic and the author of several books, Maathai was not only an activist but also an intellectual who has made significant contributions to thinking about ecology, development, gender, and African cultures and religions.

She was recognized internationally for her ongoing fight for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She is truly an activist who has dedicated her life to addressing some of these critical issues in Kenya and around the world.  She addressed the UN several times and spoke on behalf of women at the special sessions of the General Assembly for the five-year review of the Earth Summit.

Dr. Maathai’s service in environmental conservation is immense.  In 1977, Maathai founded a grassroots organization, an environmental non-governmental organization, the Green Belt Movement, focused on reforestation to promote sustainability and provide financial income for women in the region. While working with the National Council of Women of Kenya, she developed the idea that village women could improve the environment by planting trees to provide a fuel source and to slow the processes of deforestation and desertification. So far, the Green Belt Movement has planted over 45 million trees across Kenya to fight deforestation, halt soil erosion and generate income for women and their families. Dr. Maathai was a humanitarian, who fought the vicious cycle of environmental degradation and poverty.

Wangari Muta Maathai entered into a marriage with Mwangi Mathai in 1969. They had three children, two girls and one son, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta. Dr. Maathai divorced from her husband in 1977. Dr. Maathai died on September 25, 2011, from complications resulting from ovarian cancer while undergoing treatment in a hospital in Nairobi. She is buried at the Wangari Maathai Institute of Peace and Environment Studies in Nairobi. 

What Wangari Maathai left for us to think?

Maathai taught us that everything is connected. An environmentalist, she has also worked on civil rights, democracy, education and poverty. All those things are woven together. You can’t protect the natural world without confronting the threats to it. It means being politically active. She taught us that people should be aware of their rights and responsibilities as a government. People are supposed to fight for their rights.  Maathai showed us that environmentalism is not just about nature, but also about non-violence, conflict avoidance and social justice.

Interestingly, through her “Greenbelt Movement” she showed how feminism can be included in the work. She was a feminist, and her movement was run by women, but men were welcome and challenging roles to play. She empowered rural women who were struggling with poverty.  She has demonstrated through the greenbelt movement that we need to start where people are.  It allowed people to focus on what they could do, instead of complaining about all the things the government was not doing for them. This is practical and can be pursued for success.

Perhaps, the inspiration she gave to women, especially black women was not admired everywhere adequately, but we can still draw many lessons from her legacy which could be used to improve the world.


Dewondara Arachchi
Dewondara Arachchi
Social and Political Analyser, Writer


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