Wangari Maathai

11.08.2015 |

Episode #9 of the course “Incredible female leaders through history”


A 20th-century Kenyan political activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai changed the history and face of Africa. She founded the Green Belt Movement, which focuses on environmentalism and women’s rights efforts. A member of Kenyan Parliament and holder of other political offices, Maathai continued to serve the Kenyan people until her death in 2011.

Wangari Maathai came to the US to study biology in 1960, graduating from the University of Pittsburgh in 1964. After receiving her MSc, she returned to Kenya and taught while pursuing her PhD at the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman awarded a PhD by the university in 1971. Maathai continued to teach and work for humanitarian efforts. Taking up environmentalist causes, she conducted her first tree-planting Green Belt ceremony in 1977.


9.2 Wangari Maathai


Throughout the 1980s, Maathai continued to meet with world leaders to discuss environmental and humanitarian concerns in Africa, meanwhile suffering scandal and ridicule in her own country. In the 1980s, Kenya retained traditionalist values and expectations for women, and Maathai suffered social castigation after a bitter divorce from her husband. She was seen as a “difficult woman” and a threat to male university professors, politicians, and community leaders. She subsequently lost her professorships, home, and public offices. After nearly a decade of rallies, hunger strikes, and arrests, Maathai began to receive accolades in the 1990s for her efforts toward restoring peace to Kenya.

After the first democratic election in Kenya in 1992, her life was threatened. She traveled for humanitarian efforts, returning to serve in Parliament in 2002, then as the minister of the environment. In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For her remaining years, she remained active in international environmental and humanitarian efforts, serving Africa until her death from ovarian cancer in 2011.



“Until you dig a hole, you plant a tree, you water it and make it survive, you haven’t done a thing. You are just talking.”

“The people are starving. They need food; they need medicine; they need education. They do not need a skyscraper to house the ruling party and a 24-hour TV station.”

“I don’t really know why I care so much. I just have something inside me that tells me that there is a problem, and I have got to do something about it. I think that is what I would call the God in me. All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet. It must be this voice that is telling me to do something, and I am sure it’s the same voice that is speaking to everybody on this planet — at least everybody who seems to be concerned about the fate of the world, the fate of this planet.”


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