Gracefully dressed in orange, with a black-lined head wrap to match, Professor Wangari Maathai approaches the podium with her speech in hand. The audience loudly applauses her and she smiles––she is the first African woman to ever receive a Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace. As several years pass, more African women will follow pursuit and win the same prize. Professor Maathai was a trailblazer determined to reach through time and see the success of not only East and Central Africans, but every single person on earth.
Wangari Maathai, Seattle, April 2009
Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya in a small farming village, Professor Maathai would grow up under British colonization and see the resources in her village destroyed by missionaries and developers. This would greatly impact her determination and passion for the environment as she would eventually be sent to a local primary school, which for Kenyan girls at the time, was very uncommon. Professor Maathai would excel in her studies and go on to receive a scholarship to study biology in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. After receiving her bachelor’s degree, Professor Maathai went on to receive a Masters in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Taking inspiration from her time in the United States with the rise of the civil rights movement and anti-war protests, Professor Maathai would return to Kenya to study veterinary anatomy and become the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a PhD and the first ever female Professor in Kenya.
With such a decorated background of achievements, Professor Maathai would somehow make those previous accomplishments look casual compared to what she has done for all of East and Central Africa. In 1977, Professor Mathaai founded the grass-roots Green Belt Movement that focused on preventing deforestation and sustainability. This movement also aimed at empowering East and Central African women to plant trees in their local environments and to begin thinking ecologically. The Green Belt Movement’s initiative would spread rapidly to surrounding countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe. Eventually over 30 million trees would be planted in Professor Mathaai’s lifetime and her influence on East and Central Africa’s ecosystem is still relevant, thriving, and growing today.
Professor Maathai knew when approaching the restoration of her home country’s environment that something caused all of the deforestation and destruction. Professor Maathai would famously retell an anecdote about how her mother would send her to retrieve water from a nearby stream. She’d emphasize it was clean and life was thriving. She’d observe the tadpoles which she had grown fond of and quickly inform listeners that the stream no longer existed. It dried up along with the surrounding resources like clean air, trees for firewood, and indigenous foods.
In an interview with Krista Tippett with “The On Being Project”, Professor Maathai reflected on how the British occupation of Kenyan land greatly impacted its ecosystem. Citing her country’s relationship with the then infamous fig tree. Kenyans greatly respected the towering fig trees and the British associated this appreciation with religious non-Christian worship… so they cut them down. Professor Maathai informed listeners that these fig trees were ecological safety nets that protected Kenyan from drought and mudslides:
“They [fig trees] have roots that go very deep, and, as I say, because they are not cut, they last forever. They are able to go down into the underground rock. They are able to break the rock, and they are able to bring some of the subterranean water system up nearer to the surface, and so they were responsible for many of the streams that dotted the landscape.”
Professor Maathai’s approach to environmentalism is that of sustaining and providing for the people indigenous to a land. Although indigenous communities have long known how to take care of their land, global imperialism and colonialism have shown detrimental effects to the areas being occupied––and specifically in the case of seeing the fig trees as a threat rather than seeing the trees as beneficial. Missionaries didn’t bother conducting research or asking what the significance of the tree was before cutting them down.
Professor Maathai later goes on to explain how religious efforts in many parts of Africa saw the resources there as “unlimited” as they were endlessly exploited. Today you’d hear racialized stereotypes that involve the continent of Africa as “barren” or “useless”. Resources were always finite in African occupied territories, but colonizers terrorized its citizens and abused, and in some instances, destroyed its eco-riches such as fertile soil, clean water, oil, gold, natural gas, and minerals. Professor Maathai never heard of taking care of the environment in religious teachings even though it's explicitly stated in the bible in many passages.
Professor Maathai references her upbringing and how she was raised with Christian faith. She notes in her interview with Krista Tippett and also in another interview with journalist Judith Valente that the nuns in her life showed a great devotion to their faith and what they believed in. Professor Maathai took great inspiration from them and applied it to her conservation efforts noting that although Christianity had negative effects on her home country, she saw the silver lining in learning about passion and dedication to a cause bigger than herself.
That is how Professor Maathai is remembered by many. An outspoken woman who was never afraid. She had been arrested on multiple occasions for protesting and would return to the very protests that put her behind bars. She protected forests throughout all of East and Central Africa, she assisted in creating plant nurseries, and most importantly planted trees throughout the continent. When Professor Maathai was put to rest in 2011 after a long battle with cancer, she continued her love for the environment by requesting she be buried in a bamboo-frame casket made of water hyacinth and papyrus reeds, ensuring no trees are cut down for the sake of her burial. To Kenyans and many around the world, Professor Wangari Maathai will forever be known as the “Mama Miti”, Swahili for Mother of Trees.
- Ecosia. “Tree Planter, Nobel Prize Laureate, Revolutionary: Prof. Wangari Maathai at 80”
- “The Nobel Peace Prize 2004.” NobelPrize.org
- Tippett, Krista. “Wangari Maathai Marching with Trees.” On Being, April 6, 2006. Onbeing.org
- “November 9, 2007 ~ Wangari Maathai.” PBS, Public Broadcasting Service, 10 May 2013
- “Wangari Maathai.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 28 Oct. 2021
- Wangari Muta Maathai
About the author
Bianca Cruz, wearing our Pleated Head Wrap in Coco
Bianca Cruz is a Wrap Life model and editorial assistant at Clarkson Potter. She graduated from Hunter College in New York City with a bachelor’s degree in English Language Arts with a minor in German. Following her internship at Oxford University Press, Bianca attended the Columbia Publishing Course and now attends the Institute of Culinary Education where she is currently pursuing her dreams of becoming a Chef.