Today I'd like to introduce you to an amazing woman who, sadly, died last week. Wangari Muta Maathai was best known as the force behind Kenya's Green Belt Movement, a program she developed to help women plant trees in order to conserve the environment and improve the quality of life.
Born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Kenya, Maathai’s first years were spent when the country was still a British colony. Her family was Kikuyu, which is the largest ethnic group in Kenya, and when she was seven years old she, her mother, and two brothers lived in one place while her father worked on a white-owned farm in a different part of the country (1: No Paternal Safety Net). Maathai moved to Mathari and entered St. Cecilia’s intermediate Primary School, which was a Catholic boarding school (3: Belief In The Unbelievable). At that time she became fluent in English and took the Christian name of Mary Josephine.
When she completed her studies at St. Cecilia’s, she was ranked first in her class (10: The Critic Within) and was admitted to Kenya’s only Catholic High School for girls - Loreto High School Limuru. During the 1960s, her country was undergoing upheaval, including the Mau Mau uprising and the end of Colonialism, 300 Kenyan’s were chosen to study at American Universities. They were part of a program known as “The Kennedy Airlift” or “Airlift Africa.”; Barack Obama was one of the recipients of this scholarship program.
Maathai studied at Mt. St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison Kansas, majored in Biology, minored in Chemistry and German, and graduated in 1964. The Africa-American Institute provided a Scholarship for her to enroll at the University of Pittsburgh for her Masters Degree in Biological Sciences, which she received in 1966.
Told that she had been appointed as a research assistant at University College of Nairobi, she returned to Kenya only to learn that the position had been given to someone else. Her belief was that this was due to both tribal and gender bias. She found work at the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi under a German professor (Reinhold Hofmann), who encouraged her to peruse her doctorate; she studied at both University of Munich and The University of Giessen (4: Supportive Someone).
In 1969, she returned to Nairobi to work as an assistant lecturer and continue her doctorate studies. That year she married Mwangi Mathai, who had also studied in America. In 1971 she became the first East African woman to receive a PhD, and by 1977 she was named Associate Professor in Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi. During this time, she campaigned for equal rights for female staff members at the university, and joined the National Council of Women of Kenya. She began to see that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation, and it became her life's work (7 Magnificent Obsession).
She encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries and search nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. In return, she paid the women a small stipend for each seedling that could later be planted elsewhere. In 1979, after ten years of marriage, she and her husband divorced (15: Forget about Prince Charming), and her activism on behalf of women and the environment led her to be the recipient of a campaign of hurtful name calling. Maathai (and everyone else) was told that she was: too strong-minded for a woman, cruel, ignorant, a mad woman, and a threat to the order and security of the country (5: Life is not a Popularity Contest).
Her divorce was costly, and there was no way she could afford to support their three children on her University salary alone. So she let them stay with their father for the next six years while she accepted a job in Zambia that required extensive travel. By 1992, her advocacy for the environment and her pro-Democracy activism made her a target for assassination (11: Risk Addiction). As a result, she barricaded herself in her home for three days before the police entered and arrested her. She was arrested again in 2001 in an attempt to save public land from deforestation.
In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman (and first environmentalist) to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Thanks to her determination and bravery, more than 30 million - WOW - trees (and women) are standing proud. Sadly, Maathai died at age 71, but her cause continues; for more information contact: www.greenbeltmovement.org
Looking forward to your comments . . .