Wangari Maathai - The Woman who Planted Millions of Trees

Wangari Maathai (nee Muta) was born in 1940 in a village in Kenya. She was a bright child and went to the local school when she was 8. In 1960, a programme was devised to help fund the education of promising Kenyan students in America. Sent up by President Kennedy, Maathai was one of 300 students to be selected and given the opportunity to study in America (Maathai, 2006). Maathai did not waste the opportunity. She studied in Kansas where she majored in Biology, with minors in Chemistry and German, and in 1964 she was awarded her degree (Maathai, 2006). She then went on to study a Masters in biology at the University of Pittsburgh, it was here that Maathai had her first encounter with environmental restoration when a local group were pushing to rid the city of air pollution.

Following the completion of her Masters, Maathai returned to Kenya where she had been offered a job at the University of Nairobi as a research assistant to a professor in Zoology (Maathai, 2006). When she arrived to begin her job, however, she was told the job had gone to someone else. Maathai believed this was due to gender and tribal bias - it would not be the last time she encountered such discrimination. (Maathai, 2006). After two months of job-hunting Maathai landed a job as a research assistant for micro-anatomy, at the University of Giessen in Germany. In 1966, she met Mwangi Mathai, her future husband. The following year, encouraged by the professor she was assisting, Maathai pursued a doctorate during which she studied at the Universities of Giessen and Munich. She married Mwangi in 1969 and returned to Nairobi as an assistant lecturer (Maathai, 2006). The same year, she fell pregnant with the first of her three children and her husband ran for parliament, although he was unsuccessful. Following the assassination of Tom Mboya, who was fundamental in creating the programme which sent Maathai to America, President Kenyatta effectively ended multi-party democracy in Kenya. In 1971, Maathai achieved the first of her many significant achievements when she was awarded a Doctorate in Veterinary Anatomy, thus making her the first East African woman to be awarded a PhD. Her achievements did not end there.

University of Nairobi, Department of Veterinary Pathology, Microbiology, and Parasitology.

Maathai continued teaching; in 1975 she became a senior lecturer, the following year she became the Chair for the department of Veterinary Anatomy, and in 1977 she became an associate professor (Nobel Foundation, 2021). She was the first woman in Nairobi to earn any of these positions. Whilst teaching, she also fought for the equal rights of female staff at the University (Maathai, 2006). Alongside her academic work, Maathai also became involved in civic organisations. She became the director of the Kenyan Red Cross society in 1973, and the following year she was asked to join the board of the newly established Environment Liaison Centre which worked to promote the involvement of NGOs in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). She also joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organisation which involved numerous nationwide organisations (Maathai, 2006). Through these civic organisations Maathai realised that many of Kenya's problems were cause at the root by environmental degradation.

In 1974, Maathai had her third child and once again her husband campaigned for a seat in Parliament - this time he was successful. In his campaign he promised to help find jobs in order to reduce unemployment which in turn led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration with providing jobs. Maathai consequently founded Envirocare Ltd which involved planting trees to conserve the environment, engaging ordinary people in the process. This led to her planting her first tree nursery. Unfortunately, the project failed due to lack of funding, but in 1976 Maathai attended the first UN conference on human settlements (known as Habitat 1). Following her attendance at Habitat 1, Maathai spoke to the NCWK about her experience. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported. To mark World Environment Day, on the 5th of June 1977, members of the NCWK marched to the outskirts of Nairobi where they planted 7 trees in honour of historical community leaders. This was the first event of what became the Green Belt Movement (Maathai, 2006). Maathai encouraged women to plant tree nurseries by searching local forests to find seeds for native trees. In return the women would be paid a small stipend for every seedling which was later planted elsewhere (Maathai, 2006).

In 1977 Maathai separated from her husband and two years later he filed for divorce. Mwangi believed that Wangari was 'too strong-minded for a woman' and he was 'unable to control her'. He also publicly accused her of adultery and the judge ruled in his favour. Maathai said the judge was either incompetent or corrupt, leading her to be sentence to 6 months in jail for contempt of court (Perlez, 1989). After three days her lawyer produced a statement which was found sufficient for her release. Maathai struggled to support herself and her children on university wages, so she accepted a job with the Economic Commission for Africa, but this required a lot of travel, so she sent her children to live with their father, although she visited often. Mwangi Mathai wanted Wangari to drop his surname but instead she chose to add an extra 'a', thus becoming Wangari Maathai.

President Daniel arap Moi - former President of Kenya (served from 1978 - 2002)

Maathai chose to run for chair of the NCWK in 1979, however President Daniel arap Moi sought to limit the influence of the Kikuyu ethnicity, so she lost by three votes. She ran again in 1980, and again she received opposition from the government. Nevertheless, a member organisation who were close to arap Moi left the NCWK, and Maathai won the election. However, funding went to the other organisation so the NCWK became virtually bankrupt. Maathai continued to be re-elected as chairperson of the NCWK until she stepped down in 1987 (Maathai, 2006). Maathai decided to run for parliament in 1982, and therefore was required to step down from her job at the University of Nairobi. However, the courts decided that, as she had not registered to vote in the previous election, she was not eligible to run. Maathai requested her job back but was denied, and as such she was evicted from her university owned housing (Maathai, 2006).

Whilst unemployed Maathai focused on her work with the NCWK. This provided her with the opportunity to partner with the Norwegian Forestry Society and received "seed money" from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. This allowed the Green Belt movement to expand, allowing for more employees, and the continued payment of the stipend to women who planted seedlings. The movement was also expanded to pay a stipend to the women's husbands and sons who were literate and could keep accurate records of seedlings planted (Maathai, 2006). The UN held the third Global Women's Conference in Nairobi in 1985, during which Maathai held seminars about the work of the Green Belt Movement and escorted delegates to see nurseries and plant trees. This further helped expand funding for the Green Belt movement and allowed the movement to establish itself outside Kenya, thus the Pan-African Green Belt Network was founded. Over the next three years, 45 representatives from 15 African nations travelled to Kenya to learn how to set up similar programmes. The ensuing media attention led to Maathai being honoured with numerous awards. However, the Kenyan Government demanded that the Green Belt Movement separate from the NCWK so in 1987 Maathai stepped down from the NCWK and focused on the newly separate NGO (Maathai, 2006).

During the latter half of the 1980's the Kenyan government opposed the Green Belt Movement's position on democratic rights. At the time Kenya was a single party state, and the government introduced a law preventing more than 9 people from meeting without a government issued license. As a result, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities in 1988. They encouraged people to register to vote and pressed for constitutional reform. The following year, Maathai protested the building of a huge complex in Uhuru Park which would have taken up a large chunk of the public park. Maathai wrote letters to the people involved, as well as to foreign investors. She equated it to building in Hyde Park or Central Park. The Government refused to respond to her, labelling he a crazy woman, and despite her protest, ground was broken. Maathai was forced to vacate her office and the Green Belt movement relocated into her home. Nevertheless, Maathai had gained the attention of the media so foreign investors cancelled the Uhuru Park project in 1990.

In 1992, pro-democracy supporters became aware of an assassination list, Maathai's name was on it. A pro-democracy group called for a general election after presenting their evidence to the media. That same day, Maathai was warned that someone in the group had been arrested. Fearing she was next Maathai barricaded herself at home. Police surrounded the house and besieged her for three days before they cut through the bars she had installed over her windows. Maathai was arrested but after a day and a half, she and others were released on bail. Following her arrest, a variety of international organisations as well as 8 US senators (including Al Gore) pressured the Kenyan government to give sufficient evidence or risk damaging relations with the USA. In November, the charges against Maathai were dropped (Maathai, 2006). Whilst on bail Maathai participated in a hunger strike in Uhuru Park to force the government to release political prisoners. Four days later the police attempted to arrest the protesters and Maathai was attacked and hospitalised. These actions drew international criticism. Protests continued from February 1992 until early 1993 when the political prisoners were finally released (Maathai, 2006). Although the Kenyan government did not appreciate Maathai's work, she received various awards internationally.

In 1992, both Maathai and President arap Moi went to Rio for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (the Earth Summit). The Kenyan government did not want Maathai to be allowed to speak, but she was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the summit (Maathai, 2006). That same year Kenya had its first multi-party election. Maathai and others worked to unite the opposition against the KANU (President arap Moi's party), but the KANU won the election. In 1993, there was ethnic violence across the country, so Maathai travelled with friends and press to plant 'trees of peace', however the government was quick to oppose. In the face of opposition Maathai was forced into hiding. Whilst in hiding, she was invited to Tokyo for a meeting of Green Cross International (an environmental organisation founded by Mikhail Gorbachev, leader of the Soviet Union). When Maathai replied that she was in hiding and did not think the government would allow her to leave the country, Gorbachev pressured Kenya to allow Maathai to travel freely. The Kenyan President argued that he had never limited Maathai and she was allowed to leave, but it was too late for her to attend the meeting in Tokyo. In 1993 she travelled to Scotland where she was awarded the Edinburgh Medal. In May that year, she was in Chicago where she was awarded the Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award, and in June she attended the UN's World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.

Kenya had another election in 1997, and just as previously, Maathai wished to unite the opposition. In November, two months before the election, she decided to run for parliament and president of the Liberal Party. The press questioned her intentions, and many felt she should stick to the Green Belt Movement. Unsurprisingly, she lost the election. The following year, she learned of government plans to privatise parts of land in the Karura forest and give it to political supporters. Maathai protested and with other members of the Green Belt movement, she went to the forest and planted trees. In 1999, a group of protesters, including Maathai, 6 opposition MPs, journalists, international observers, and members of the Green Belt movement all returned to the forest. The entrance was guarded and when Maathai tried to plant a tree in an area intended to be converted into a golf course, the group was attacked. Many individuals were injured including Maathai, 4 MPs and some of the journalists. When she reported the attack to the police, they refused to arrest her attackers, but the attack had been filmed by Maathai's supporters and in provoked international outrage (The Ecologist, 2001). Consequently, student protests took place in Nairobi and on 16th August 1999, the President announced that he was banning all allocation of public land (Maathai, 2006). When the government tried again to take public land in 2001, Maathai protested and collected signatures for a petition - she was arrested but following international protest she was released without charge.

Karura Forest, Kenya

In 2002, Maathai campaigned for parliament as a candidate for the National Rainbow Coalition through which she finally united the opposition. On December 27th, 2002, the National Rainbow Coalition defeated KANU, thus ending the term of President arap Moi, Kenya's longest serving President. In Tetu Constituency Maathai won 98% of the vote (Maathai, 2006). From 2003 to 2005 Maathai was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural resources. Maathai received her greatest honour in 2004 - a Nobel Peace Prize - for her 'contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace' (Nobel Foundation, 2004). This made Maathai the first African Woman to win the award. between 1901 and 2021 only 57 women have won a Nobel Prize compared to 876 men, a fact which amplifies the extraordinary achievement of Maathai. She was also the first environmentalist to win the peace prize.

In 2006, US Senator Barack Obama visited Kenya. His father had been educated via the same programme as Maathai. Together they planted a tree in Uhuru Park. Maathai continued working to support organisations which protected and improved the environment. In 2010 she published a book titled 'Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World' in which she engaged with religious traditions and mobilised them as resources to environmental thinking and activism (van Klinken, 2021).

On September 25th, 2011, Wangari Maathai died from complications caused by Ovarian cancer whilst receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital. She undoubtedly lived an extraordinary life, as indicated by the many awards she received. In 2012, the Wangari gardens opened in Washington DC, providing garden allotments for local residents, and she is buried in Nairobi at the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environment Studies. Perhaps the greatest aspect of her legacy, and that of which I am sure she would be most proud of, is not the Nobel Prize, or the awards and honours, but the 50 million trees planted through the Green Belt movement to which she dedicated much of her life. In years to come, we should remember that, thanks to Wangari Maathai, our planet is a little greener.

Works cited

Maathai, W. (2006). Unbowed: a memoir. Knopf

Nobel Foundation. (2004, December 10). Wangari Maathai - Nobel Lecture. The Nobel Prize.

Nobel Foundation. (2021, September 24). Wangari Maathai: Biographical. The Nobel Prize.

Perlez, J. (1989, December 6). Nairobi Journal; Skyskraper's Enemy Draws a Daily Dose of Scorn. The New York Times.

UNCCD. (2009). Wangari Maathai.

van Klinken, A. (2021). Wangari Maathai's Environmental Bible as an African Knowledge: Eco-spirituality, Christianity and Decolonial Thought. Eastern African Literary and Cultural Studies.