Wangari Maathai – (1 April 1940 – 25 Sept 2011)
Born and raised in Kenya, Maathai was selected for the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr Foundation program, which allowed her to study in the United States. She obtained her undergraduate and masters degrees in biology and moved back to Kenya in 1966 where she became a research assistant in the microanatomy at the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi. In 1971 she became the first Eastern African woman to receive her Ph.D in veterinary anatomy.
She went on to help establish the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a movement which has planted over 51 million trees, and trained over 30,000 women and helping them earn income and preserve land and resources. In Oct 1989, she opposed the proposal of a 60 story complex in Uhuru Park much to the anger of the Kenyan government, but eventually won, with the project being cancelled in January 1990.
She helped to promote free and fair elections in Kenya in 1992, but was again opposed by the government. She went into hiding but was allowed to leave after pressure on the Kenyan government from Mikail Gorbachevs environmental organisation Green Cross International.
In 1999, she planted a tree in protest of a government plan to privatize large areas of land in the Karura Forest, but was attacked. In the international outrage that ensued, President Daniel Moi banned the allocation of all public land. In 2001, the government again planned to take forest land and give it to supports, when Maathai (who of course protested), was arrested and then released. She was arrested and released without charge a few months later, after planting more trees in Uhuru Park.
The disappointment of failing in the 1997 elections didn’t faze her, as she ran again in 2002, but this time was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural resources after winning 98% of the vote. Her crowning achievement came in 2004, when she became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She was elected as the first president of the African Unions Economic, Social and Cultural Council in 2005, and was one of 8 flag bearers at the 2006 Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
When she succumbed to ovarian cancer in 2011, the world mourned a woman who risked her life, to fight not only for the environment, but for freedom. She represents a strong African woman, who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind. She was actually thrown in jail for 6 months after critising a judge. Why was she in front of a judge? Because her husband divorced her, by Maathais reasoning that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”. She was released after 3 days when she agreed to apologise.
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.” – Wangari Maathai