By: Victoria Yates
Maathai was born Wangari Muta on the 1st of April 1940 in the small village of Ihithe in the central highlands of Kenya. At age eleven she moved from the local primary school to a Catholic boarding school in Nyeri where she would stay for four years, becoming fluent in English and converting to Catholicism. It was because of her time at St Cecilia’s that she was largely unscathed by the violent Mau Mau uprising that raged around Kenya, forcing her mother to move into an emergency village. Maathai excelled academically and came to graduate first in her class before being afforded a place at the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya at that time, Loreto High School Limuru.
In 1959 Maathai became one of around three hundred Kenyans (including President Obama’s father) to be offered the chance to study in an American University as part of the “Kennedy Airlift”, funded by the then Senator John F. Kennedy. She began at what was then called Mount St Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Kansas in September 1960, where she majored in biology. Her education still continued to flourish as, upon this graduation, she went on to the University of Pittsburgh for her MSc in Biological Sciences. It was in Pittsburgh that she first came to embrace environmental activism in the form of the anti-air pollution lobby underway in the City at that time, something which continued to resonate with her throughout her career.
With her Masters in hand, Maathai returned once more to Kenya, aiming to enter University this time as a research assistant for a zoology professor at the University College of Nairobi. However, it wasn’t to be. Upon her arrival at the University she was told the position had been given to someone else, something Maathai attributed to gender and racial bias (she was from a Kikuyu tribe). Her long search for employment ended when she was offered a post within the same University this time as an assistant in the microanatomy section of the new Veterinary department. She worked under Professor Reinhold Hofmann, originally from the University of Giessen, Germany, who was to be a huge force in convincing Maathai to go to Giessen and complete a Doctorate.
In 1969 Maathai married Mwangi Mathai, falling pregnant with her first child later in the same year. It was a turbulent time politically in Kenya, with Tom Mboya, an instrumental member of the team that allowed her to study abroad initially, being assassinated and President Kenyatta by and large ending multi-party democracy in the country.
When in 1971 she received her PhD she made history as the first East African woman to do so. Her string of achievements didn’t end there as she rose through the ranks from senior lecturer (1974), chair of the department (1976), and associate professor (1977), at each stage being the first woman to hold the position in Nairobi. Beyond the classroom she had given birth to a second child, a daughter, and also been hugely active in feminist politics relating to equal benefits for female staff members.
Throughout the 70s Maathai involved herself in human right’s organizations as well as becoming involved in the Environmental Liaison Centre that promoted participation in NGOS in the United Nations Environment Programme. The activism that had early inspired her continued to flourish, and with this involvement came her conviction that the problems faced by her country were rooted in environmental degradation.
1974 saw several larger developments in Maathai’s life, starting with the birth of her third child. She was also involved in her husband’s second attempt at gaining a seat in Parliament. Part of his election pledge, to find jobs to help with escalating unemployment, led her to combine her environmental sensibilities with this business lilt, forming Envirocare Ltd. which involved the local communities in planting trees as part of conservation project. Although it ultimately failed, her efforts brought her to the attention of UNEP who had her sent to join the UN Conference on human settlements in ’76.
This knowledge and experience further kindled her conservation efforts, and was a huge force in spurring the first Green Belt Movement (the year after the conference there was a procession through Nairobi to the outskirts of the city where seven trees were planted as symbol of community leaders). Off the back of this, Maathai encouraged local women to plant nurseries in their local communities throughout Kenya. However, with her political success came personal trial when later that year her husband sued for divorce, citing that Maathai was “too strong-willed” a woman for him to control. After the divorce was finalized, Maathai’s ill-advised criticism of the judge in a magazine interview led to her spending six months in jail. Her lawyer however successfully had her released after three days. The added ‘a’ in Maathai’s surname was her last act of defiance against her husband who demanded that she give up his name. The divorce was costly and the wages Maathai earned at the University weren’t enough to cover her and her children. So she made the painful decision to send her children to live with their father, taking a position with the United Nations Development Program on the Economic Commission for Africa.
Maathai entered the political fray herself in 1979, attempting to become the Chairman of the National Council of Women in Kenya (NCWK), a charitable organization. However the crackdown on Kikuyu’s in power by the government meant that she narrowly lost, being instead voted Vice-Chairman by an overwhelming majority. Not to be deterred by the racial politics, she ran again the following year, this time succeeding when her opponent withdrew. The withdrawal, however, led to the majority of funding for women’s programs to be diverted to the government favourite while her organization was left virtually penniless. Under Maathai’s skilled leadership the group shifted its focus to the more environmental and made itself a key player. She continued to be re-elected until her official retirement in 1987.
During this same time period she also ran for Parliament, only to face allegations of ineligibility and duplicitous conduct that prevented her from running. She paid a heavy price, having had to resign from the University she lost her job and her housing. Adding insult to injury her reapplication to her post was denied, a fact that she ascribes to the President’s role as Chancellor of the University at that time. The NCWK work consumed her time as she again searched for employment. She was approached by the executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society who hoped to partner with her on the Green Belt Movement a deal she gladly accepted, making her the project coordinator. The project thrived under the joint support of the NFS and the UN, expanding its employee base and ensuring that women planting trees were still granted a small stipend.
When the UN global women’s conference came to Kenya in ’85 Maathai took the opportunity to speak on the Green Belt and to show delegates around the nurseries. The UN’s support was redoubled and under their wing Maathai took the project to the rest of Africa the following year, creating the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Despite the showering of media attention and awards, the government demanded that the NCWK be separated from the Green Belt Movement, leading to her resignation and the creation of a newly wholly NGO Green Belt.
The human rights and democratic messages inherent in Maathai’s work continued to stir up political discontent, bringing down the wrath of the government in the 80s through various legislative attacks. However as the decade came towards its end the movement had been far from hampered, and Maathai, ever unperturbed, involved the organization in the registering of voters and voicing opinions on governmental reform and freedom of expression.
One of Maathai’s greatest triumphs came in her opposition to the creation of a sixty-story complex to be built in Uhuru Park in 1989. Maathai reached out to every conceivable individual with the power to help, including the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, and equated the project with an attempt to create a skyscraper in Hyde Park. The Government painted Maathai as a crazed and ignorant woman, refusing to acknowledge her complaints and minimizing the real scale and impact of the project. And Maathai was made to give up her offices and move the operation of the Green Belt Movement into her home, immediately followed by a government audit of the group. Although it seemed as though the government would triumph, the publicity Maathai had succeeded in generating meant that foreign investors called off the project in early 1990.
Maathai’s battle with the government continued to escalate when, a few years later, she learned that her name was on a list of people targeted for assassination in a government-sponsored attack. In response, Maathai publicly barricaded herself in her home which was soon surrounded by police. Three days of siege later the police finally broke into her home and arrested her on charges of treason and malicious rumour mongering. The charges against these pro-democracy leaders were dropped only after international organizations and several prominent US Senators including Al Gore and Edward Kennedy called for substantiation of the government’s claims.
When the country’s first multi-party elections were held in 1992 Maathai was a pivotal force in attempting to unite the opposition and to garner free, fair democracy for the people. Despite her efforts the opposition remained fragmented and the government, through intimidation and its control of the media, again triumphed. Again she was targeted by the government, falsely accused of producing inflammatory material. Maathai went into hiding. It was because she declined an invitation to go to a meeting of the new environmental organization funded by Mikhail Gorbachev that she could again escape the threat. Gorbachev stepped in to demand the government allow her free and unhindered travelwhich the government granted, claiming it had never prevented her from moving as she pleased.
For several years Maathai continued to be active in environmental preservation and politics, masterminding an effort which twice scuppered the government’s plans to privatize large swathes of public land. She also returned to teaching, serving a tenure at Yale University as part of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Finally, in 2002 she was elected to parliament when the opposition, the National Rainbow Coalition, defeated the ruling party. Maathai served as the Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources for the following three years until late 2005. She also founded a National Green party as a way for candidates to run on issues of conservation.
In 2004 Maathai received her greatest accolade yet, the Nobel Peace Prize for her dedication to sustainable development, democracy, and peace, the first African woman and the first environmentalist to do so. As soon as the announcement was made public a controversy ensued when Maathai was fallaciously accused of claiming that Western powers had created HIV/Aids as a biological agent against the African population. Her further clarifications only confused the media, until she finally laid the issue to rest on grounds that she was simply trying to debunk the myths relating to Aids as a curse of God and to belief in cures like sleeping with a virgin.
In the following years Maathai remained as active as ever, one of her greatest tasks being the spearheading of the UN Billion Tree Campaign and her work helping to co-found The Nobel Women’s Initiative. On Obama’s visit to Kenya in 2006, Maathai and he met and planted a tree in Uhuru Park, an occasion which the Senator used to denounce the limiting of press freedom and the global climate of lethargy regarding environmental problems, particularly in American politics.
Maathai died on the 25th of September 2011 in Nairobi following a battle with ovarian cancer. Her death was a huge loss to the environmental movement and the fight for human rights, and women’s equality across the world. Throughout her life Maathari led the way, first educationally excelling far beyond the norms or the perceived possibilities, and later in her continued work often under extreme opposition.