In 1977, more than 40 years before United States Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York unveiled the Green New Deal, which the New York Times in 2019 described as “a congressional resolution that lays out a grand plan for tackling climate change”, Wangarĩ Muta Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement (GBM), through the National Council of Women of Kenya.
This International Women’s Day, with its 2021 theme of “Choose to challenge” (“A challenged world is an alert world and from challenge comes change. So let’s all choose to challenge”), is an ideal time to recognise Maathai, who embodies these attributes of challenge and change.
Maathai was born in Africa on 1 April 1940, in Nyeri, a rural part of Kenya, which was still under British colonial rule. Her people were of the Kikuyu ethnic group. She went on to become the first woman from East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, and in 2004 she was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel peace prize, “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.
A biography of Maathai published by the Green Belt Movement (GBM) organisation says her mother was a firm believer in the importance of education and inspired her daughter to excel all the way through high school.
In 1960 she was selected as one of about 300 academically promising young Kenyans to study in the US, through a program that became known as “Airlift Africa”, or “the Kennedy Airlift”, because funding was arranged that year by future president John F Kennedy, then a US senator; Kenyan nationalist Tom Mboya and the US African-American Students Foundation had started the program the year before.
Maathai studied biology, chemistry and German at Mount St Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas, and was awarded a Bachelor of Science degree in 1964.
From there she moved to the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, earning a master’s degree in biological sciences in 1966. Her thesis was titled “Developmental and Cytological Study of the Pineal Body of Coturnix coturnix japonica”, which is a species of quail found in east Asia.
Inspired by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the mid-1960s saw the beginning of an environmental movement in the US, as Americans started to take notice of extreme air and water pollution in and around industrial centres such as Pittsburgh. It was here that Maathai received her first taste of environmental activism.
Maathai was offered a job at University College of Nairobi by Professor Reinhold Hofmann. She worked as a research assistant in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine.
The following year, encouraged by Hofmann, who had come from the University of Giessen, Germany, she applied for and won a scholarship to take up PhD studies in Germany under the Nairobi-Giessen Partnership Program.
An article published in 2005 by the University of Nairobi explains how in 1969 she returned to the school to complete her studies, which culminated in 1971 with her PhD project in veterinary anatomy, titled “Early Development of Male Bovine Gonads”, making her “the first indigenous woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree”.
In 1976 Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and a year later she became an associate professor, “again becoming the first indigenous woman in the region to attain those positions”.
The Nobel Prize organisation’s biography of Maathai says that in 1976 she became an active member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, serving as its chairwoman from 1981 to 1987. It was here that she introduced the idea of developing “a broad-based, grassroots organisation whose main focus is the planting of trees with women’s groups in order to conserve the environment and improve their quality of life”.
The result was the Green Belt Movement. According to its online history, Maathai was responding “to the needs of rural Kenyan women who reported that their streams were drying up, their food supply was less secure, and they had to walk further and further to get firewood for fuel and fencing”.
Through the movement, it says, they were encouraged “to work together to grow seedlings and plant trees to bind the soil, store rainwater, provide food and firewood, and receive a small monetary token for their work”.
GBM says that since 1977, it has worked with communities to plant more than 51 million trees in Kenya, “in watersheds in the highlands of Mount Kenya, the Aberdares, and the Mau Complex – three of the five major mountain ecosystems in Kenya, as well as on private lands”.
It says GBM “also plants trees on public lands with institutions such as faith-based groups, schools, and has a partnership with the Kenya Army to help access remote areas for planting and tree planting on army lands”.
It says Maathai believed that the hardships of the poor – “environmental degradation, deforestation, and food insecurity” – were caused by deeper issues of “disempowerment, disenfranchisement, and a loss of traditional values”.
These beliefs led her away from her work in science and education and into politics. In its obituary for her, the Guardian says Maathai served as an assistant minister in president Mwai Kibaki’s government from 2003 to 2005, “but her refusal to keep silent on some issues saw her politically sidelined, and she lost her seat after a single term.
“Her work schedule remained hectic however, and she wrote several books and travelled widely.”
Maathai died on 25 September 2011 after a battle with ovarian cancer. She is survived by three children and two grandchildren.