Dr. Wangarĩ Muta Maathai was a Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Dr. Maathai, who hails from Kenya, was given the award by the judges based on her “contributions to sustainable development, democracy, and peace” according to the Nobel organization.
Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in the small village of Ihithe within the Nyeri District of the Central Highlands of Kenya. An excellent student, Maathai was one of the 300 Kenyan students selected for President John F. Kennedy’s “Kennedy Airlift” project that gave them opportunities to study in the United States.
Maathai studied at Mount St. Scholastica College, now known as Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kan. After completing her undergraduate studies, she was awarded funding from the Africa-America Institute and entered the University of Pittsburgh where she earned her master’s degree in biology. At the school, Maathai was introduced to environmental restoration, which would become her life’s calling.
After returning to Kenya in the spring if 1969, Maathai worked at the University College of Nairobi while at the same time running a Ph.D program. In May of the same year, she married her husband Mwangi Mathai.
In 1971, she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to become a Doctor of Philosophy, receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in Kenya. She completed her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines.
In the 70’s, after marriage and motherhood, Maathai began sticking her head in activism. She campaigned for equal rights for women workers at the university and attempted to form unions. Maathai was also active in the Kenya Red Cross and other nonprofit groups. Labeled a firebrand for her outspoken approach, Maathai claims that her activism and drive led to her divorce.
In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, the largest tree-planting project in Africa. Green Belt promotes biodiversity and at the same time creates jobs and gives women a stronger identity in society.
Maathai revealed in past interviews that as she became more successful she faced gender bias in her home country.
Maathai Stood at the “front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.” She was an outspoken environmentalist, whose tree-planting campaign slowed deforestation and aided the poor.
Maathai’s tree planting campaign led to her been voted Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” in 1998.
In 2004, Wangarĩ Maathai was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Maathai was the first African woman to win the prestigious award. According to Nobel’s will, the Peace Prize shall be awarded to the person who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”.
Between 1901 and 2018, only 52 Nobel Prize awards were given to women, while 852 Nobel Prize awards have been given to men. Through her significant efforts, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the Peace Prize.
In June 2009, Maathai was named as one of PeaceByPeace.com’s first peace heroes. Until her death in 2011, Maathai served on the Eminent Advisory Board of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA).
Maathai died of complications from ovarian cancer on 25 September 2011, aged 71.