Dr. Wangari Maathai is an internationally renowned Kenyan environmental political activist, feminist, professor, human rights advocate and an absolute must know African female role model! Her story is the blueprint for transcending traditional gender roles in African society and the empowerment of ordinary African women. Her determination, willingness to go against the grain and steadfast belief in her cause led her to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for “ her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace” in 2004.
Born in 1940 in rural Kenya, Wangari Muta Maathai was a star student who got educated in America and later on earned a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree.
Her best work is reflected through the Green Belt Movement(GBM), an organization she founded in 1977 focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights. At her death in 2011, the Green Belt Movement had planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations, while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.
At its core, the GBM organizes women in rural Kenya to plant trees to combat deforestation thereby restoring their main source of fuel for cooking, generating income, and stopping soil erosion. In addition Wangari incorporated advocacy and empowerment for women in the movement which are the parts I love the most about it! Worki
ng with the National Council of Women of Kenya, Maathai’s group has been providing services to Kenyan women and villages that include lessons on family planning, nutrition, and leadership skills. By encouraging women to question their place and challenge social and political institutions that keep women compliant, the organization evolved into a powerful vehicle for empowering women in Kenya and East Africa.
When Wangari Maathai started the GBM, it was framed as a non-threatening environmental conservation effort, but the movement evidently grew in power and influence and because a voice for environmental conservation in Kenya. They were in constant conflict with the government, over the rapid urbanization of Kenya that was happening at the expense of its greenery. It did not help that the GBM was led by a Kikuyu, an ethnic group the government regarded as trouble makers. They routinely accused them of undermining the government and over the course of her political activism career, Wangari Maathai was repeatedly imprisoned, attacked, and targeted for assassination by the government. For instance, in 1989, Wangari and some supporters sustained severe injuries from the police while staging a peaceful protest against the demolition of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park, which was slated to be replaced by a 62-story business complex with a new headquarters for the country’s ruling party.
Fun fact about Wangari Maathai is that her husband actually divorced her, and in the proceedings he openly cited that she was “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her” ( emasculated much??) . The judge ruled in favor of the husband and Wangari ended up getting jailed for calling him incompetent! Whether any of this about her personal life was true I still love Wangari for her spunk and standing up for herself and what she believed in. She transcended the normative roles of women in African culture and did not half ass it either, all the way to international recognition :)!
Most of all, I love her for taking other African women on this empowering and self-affirming journey with her and I aspire to do that with my friends, family and in my career! My African girlfriends group chat has already been renamed Dora Milaje, and we are about that crashing it at life thing!
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Further reading on Wangari Mathaai
NY Times – Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace Prize
Wangari Maathai and The Green Belt Movement