Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, an organisation fighting to conserve the environment and campaign for women’s rights. She was the first African women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in particular”.

Maathai was born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of Kenya, which was then a British colony. At the age of 8, she began attending the local primary school, despite the fact that it was uncommon for girls to be educated at the time. She was first in her class, and this enabled her to continue her education at the Loreto Girls’ High School, and won a scholarship in 1960 to attend college in the United States. Maathai graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas in 1964. She then completed a master’s degree in biological sciences at the University of Pittsburgh. Maathai then returned to Kenya, where worked as a research assistant at the University of Nairobi. In 1967, she began studying for a doctorate at the University of Giessen in Germany and the University of Munich. She returned to Nairobi to take on a position as an assistant lecturer at the University College of Nairobi and finish her doctorate. In 1971, she became the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She then took a position teaching veterinary anatomy. In 1976 she became the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and a year later became an associate professor. She was the first woman in both positions in the region. During her time at the university, she successfully campaigned for equal pay for women on the staff of the university.

Maathai was involved in a number of organisations in the early 1970’s, including the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, which she became the director of in 1973. A year later, she became a member of the local board of the Environmental Liaison Centre, rising to become board chair. From 1976 - 1987 Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya, serving as chair from 1981–1987. During this time, she came up with the idea of community-based tree planting in order to reduce poverty - specifically in women - and conserve the environment. In 1977, she set up the Green Belt Movement (GBM) which provided tree planting jobs for women, addressing both an environmental, and a financial problem at once. The GBM is responsible for the planting of more than 30 million trees in Kenya and providing roughly 30,000 women with new skills and opportunities.

In 1979, Maathai ran for the position of chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). The President at the time, Daniel arap Moi was determined that those of Kikuyu ethnicity would not be put in positions of power, and as a result, she lost the election. A year later, she ran again and this time she won, leading Daniel arap Moi to divert funds to Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a member organisation which supported the President. This lead to the NCWK becoming almost bankrupt, although Maathai continued to lead and focus on conserving the environment and raising awareness of the NCWK.

In 1986, following the third global women’s conference in Nairobi where Maathai presented the impact of the work that she GBM had been doing in Kenya, she gained enough support to establish the movement outside of Kenya. The Pan-African Green Belt Movement was founded with the support of both the Norwegian Forestry Society and the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. A year later, Maathai resigned her position as chairperson of the NCWK to focus on the GBM as the government felt that the two should be separate, as NCWK should only focus on women’s issues. The GBM attracted a huge amount of attention for its work, and Maathai was honoured with a number of awards.

In the late 1980’s, the Kenyan government began to target Maathai and the GBM. In 1988, the GBM worked to register voters for the election and fought for constitutional reform and freedom of expression following the Kenyan government bringing back a colonial-era law which prohibited groups of more than nine people meeting without a government license. In 1989, Maathai led a protest against the construction of a skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uluru Park which led to President Moi stating that she should “be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet.” and that those to objected to the project had “insects in their heads”. Maathai was forced to leave her office, and the GBM had to operate from her home. The government then audited the GBM in an attempt to shut it down. Maathai was ultimately successful, as the media coverage of her protest led to foreign investors cancelling the project.

In 1992, Maathai was targeted for assassination due to her pro-democracy activism. Despite barricading herself into her home, the police eventually arrested her and charged her with spreading malicious rumours, sedition and treason. Following pressure from a range of international organisations and eight U.S. senators, the charged were dropped to avoid damaging relations with the U.S. A month later, Maathai and other activists took part in a corner of Uhuru Park, which they called Freedom Corner to call for the release of political prisoners. Four days later, they were forcibly removed by the police who knocked Maathai unconscious, leading to her hospitalisation. That same year, the first multi-party election was held in Kenya. Maathai and others who shared her ideals formed the Middle Ground Group, for which Maathai was chairperson as well as the Movement for Free and Fair Elections. Despite this, the opposition did not unite and the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party retained control.

In 1993, Maathai travelled to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal, Chicago to receive the Jane Addams International Women’s Leadership Award and attended the UN’s World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna. Although the opposition tried to defeat the KANU party in the next few elections, it wasn’t until 2002 that the KANU party lost. During that time, Maathai had been targeted by the government, forced into hiding, arrested and lies had been printed about her in the media. In Tetu constituency, Maathai won an overwhelming 98% of the vote, and a year later she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources. That same year, she founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya which is a member of the Federation of Green Parties of Africa and the Global Greens.

In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”. A year later, she was elected the first president of the African Union’s Economic, Social and Cultural Council and was appointed a goodwill ambassador for an initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. In 2006, she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign and was one of the co-founders of the Nobel Women’s Initiative. In 2007, Maathai was defeated in a parliamentary election which she felt was fraudulent and called for a recount. In 2009, she was named one of’s first peace heroes and in 2010 she became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust and founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI) in association with the University of Nairobi. She served on the Eminent Advisory Board of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA) until her death in 2011. A year later, the Collaborative Partnership on Forests launched the Wangari Maathai Award to honour and commemorate an extraordinary woman who championed forest issues around the world. Her work is continued by the The Wangari Maathai Foundation (WMF) and the GBM.

Sources here, here, here and here.

Wangari Maathai was suggested by @aseantoo

Happy International Women’s Day!

Today we celebrate International Women’s Day with the story of the late Wangari Maathai.

Thirty years ago, Wangari Maathai planted a seed in the minds of Kenyan women. They began planting trees that would provide firewood, clean water and nourishment for their communities. 

What started as a simple tree planting program changed the way Kenyans saw their history, their future and themselves, and brought Maathai a Nobel peace prize.

Watch an environmental movement unfold in “Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai” on Independent Lens.


Black History Month is coming to a close & in this post I’ve compiled a list of all of the amazing women I’ve illustrated for Black History Month, along with a summary of their accomplishments and a link to the original post. This has been the most successful month to date for Illustrated Women in History and I just want to thank all of my followers for sharing this celebration of women with me.

Octavia E. Butler was a world renowned African-American science fiction novelist and the first African-American woman to gain popularity and critical acclaim as a major science fiction writer. Her novels include Patternmaster, Kindred, Dawn and Parable of the Sower.

Zadie Smith is a British novelist, essayist, and short story writer best known for her novel, White Teeth.

Viola Desmond was a Black Nova Scotian businesswoman who challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946. Her actions sparked the modern civil rights movement in Canada.

Eartha Kitt was an American actress, singer, cabaret star, dancer, stand-up comedian, activist and voice artist. She had a distinctive singing style and is best known for her Christmas song “Santa Baby” and for playing Catwoman in the television series Batman.

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was an African-American nurse, real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist. She was able to support her extended family for generations due to her financial success.

Miriam Makeba was a South African singer and civil rights activist also known as “Mama Africa” and the “Empress of African Song”. She introduced Xhosa and Zulu songs to Western audiences, becoming one of the world’s most prominent black African performers in the 20th century. She is best known for the songs “Pata Pata,” “The Click Song” and “Malaika.”

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, an organisation fighting to conserve the environment and campaign for women’s rights. She was the first African women to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights, and women’s rights in particular”.

Georgia Douglas Johnson was an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance and the first modern African-American female poet and playwright to gain widespread recognition.

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is the current President of Liberia. She is the first elected female head of state in Africa as well as the world’s first elected black female president. In 2011 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for her non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.”

Ella Baker was an African-American civil rights and human rights activist who worked with the NAACP and co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet and teacher. She was the first black author to win a Pulitzer prize, the first black woman to become poetry consultant to the Library of Congress and the Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1968 until her death.

Fannie Lou Hamer was an American voting rights activist, civil rights leader, and philanthropist. She was instrumental in organising Mississippi’s Freedom Summer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and served as vice-chair of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.

Dorothy Height was an American civil rights and women’s rights activist who served as president of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) for four decades. She is known as the “godmother of the civil rights movement.”

Ntozake Shange is an American playwright and poet best known for the Obie Award-winning play for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. She is a self-proclaimed black feminist, and her work frequently addresses race and feminism.

Ethel L. Payne was an African-American journalist, publisher, civil rights leader, and educator known as the “First Lady of the Black Press”.

Alice Walker is an American novelist, story story writer, poet and civil rights activist. She is best known for her critically acclaimed novel The Color Purple, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

Margaret Ekpo was a Nigerian women’s rights activist, social mobiliser and a pioneering female politician in Nigeria’s First Republic.

Mary Eliza Mahoney was the first black professional nurse in the U.S. She co-founded the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses (NACGN), which worked to eliminate racial discrimination within the registered nursing profession.

Daisy Bates was an American journalist and civil rights activist who is best known for playing a leading role in the Little Rock Integration Crisis of 1957.

Wangari Maathai (1940-2011) was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. She authored four books: The Green Belt Movement; Unbowed: A Memoir; The Challenge for Africa; and Replenishing the Earth. As well as having been featured in a number of books, she and the Green Belt Movement were the subject of a documentary film, Taking Root: the Vision of Wangari Maathai (Marlboro Productions, 2008).

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, a rura…l area of Kenya (Africa), in 1940. She obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, before obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977 respectively. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region. ( ‪#‎WomensHistoryMonth‬ ‪#‎Herstory‬ ‪#‎IWHM‬

Watch on

“TAKING ROOT is a compelling documentary narrative about the first environmentalist and first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1977, "Wangari Maathai suggested rural women plant trees to address problems stemming from a degraded environment. Under her leadership, their tree-planting grew into a nationwide movement to safeguard the environment, defend human rights and promote democracy, and brought Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004.” (The GreenBelt Movement)

The documentary shows plainly the strength and activism of African women, in this case Kenyan women. This is a portrayal that directly confronts the common narrative that typifies that African people, and African women in particular, as weak, helpless, and eternally suffering.

The documentary also stresses the paramount importance of education, an education that challenged Kenyan people to unlearn the colonial and capitalist ways imprinted upon them by their European colonizers. Wangari Maathai, a Kikuyu woman, set out to “take root”  in the “coded wisdom” of her own culture and use it to educate her people, starting with the women, of their human and environmental rights.

  • Listen

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, has died. She was 71. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, which has planted over thirty million trees across Kenya. In 2002, she was elected to Kenya’s parliament, and in 2003 was appointed assistant minister for the environment. She joined Terry Gross for a conversation in 2006.

Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement, which focused on planting trees and women’s rights; her organization paid a small stipend to women to plant seedlings throughout the country. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, with the committee citing her contribution to “sustainable development, democracy and peace.”


UNESCO Women In African History educational series

I just posted about the Wangari Maathai comic from the UNESCO Series on Women in African History.

Here’s the home page for this great educational resource, with a map so you can find great women to read up on. Just mouse over any icon for the name and then click to get biographies, comics and more!

Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost. The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it. As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.

The “inner ecology” is the sense of wonder that we all have, especially as children about the world around us. But it is also the simple fact that our inner constitution is part and parcel of the environment around us. We need air to breathe and water to drink and food to sustain us. The environment that surrounds us directly provides us — physically and spiritually — with its bounty. If the outer environment is sick, then we become sick, not only physically because we are drinking impure water, or breathing polluted air, or not eating enough or consuming poorly produced food, but because we are psychologically and spiritually diminished.

—Wangari Maathai, hear more in “Planting the Future.”

(Photo by Michael Davis-Burchat)


In this charming short story, a hummingbird explains why we have to at least try.

Environmental activist Wangari Maathai understands that we’re constantly being bombarded by problems we face, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. She has a story about a hummingbird that may help.