As the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Maathai empowered women to do good for their communities, for the environment, and for themselves.

When Dr. Wangari Maathai was a young girl, she faced down a leopard in the bush near her childhood home in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya. She inherently understood in that moment that she was fearless, and would call upon that bravery often as she grew up. 

Dr. Maathai came from a community steeped in tradition. Her culture had a deep respect for nature, especially its native trees. There were even trees that were prohibited from being cut down. Her community protected fig trees, known as “a tree of God,” because they believed that the forest would always provide for the people if fig trees grew.

While some said Dr. Maathai was too smart for a girl, her mother disagreed and insisted that her whip-smart daughter be sent away to Nairobi, Kenya to study. Dr. Maathai took all of her worldly possessions: three dresses and the stories of her ancestors that would shape her future.

Dr. Maathai excelled at school and received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas under the Kennedy Airlift program, which awarded such scholarships to 300 Kenyans in 1960.  There, she earned a degree in biological sciences, then a masters of science at the University of Pittsburgh, and a PhD in Germany and Kenya, where she obtained a doctoral degree from the University of Nairobi and taught veterinary anatomy. She was the first woman from East or Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She became the chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976, an associate professor in 1977, and founded the Green Belt Movement that same year.

Dr. Maathai wanted to use her education to help her people and the environment and when she returned to Kenya, she discovered that much had changed. The forest had largely been cut down, including the sacred fig trees, and the streams had dried up. Women, always the first affected by change and who produced the majority of food, walked many miles for firewood and clean water. 

Dr. Maathai discovered that water and forestry rights had been parceled out to powerful government officials. Fertile farmland, once distributed equitably among Kenyan citizens, was now being privatized. As a result, common people suffered at the hands of corrupt officials and changing land distribution policies.

With her three degrees in hand, Dr. Maathai knew she had to do something. An activist was born.

Dr. Maathai joined the National Council of Women in Kenya and served as its chairperson from 1981-1987.

Through her service, it became clear that the process of empowering women had to begin from the ground up by tackling the immediate problems they faced.

She instituted a community program of tree planting. Those trees would provide wood for fires, anchor the soil to prevent erosion, and even attract water to their roots. Village women went into the forest that remained, gathered seeds of native trees, and earned a small stipend for every seedling they planted. 

“You don’t need a diploma to plant a tree,” Dr. Maathai told women she met. She explained that trees would help pay the bills, increase each woman’s status in the community, and create a sense of ownership and camaraderie.

This small project snowballed into a larger effort called the Green Belt Movement, which simultaneously promoted conservation and reducing poverty. The movement spread throughout Africa and has accounted for the planting of more than 51 million trees so far.

Dr. Maathai’s activism didn’t come without a price, however. She had met Mwangi Mathai and married him while studying for her doctorate. The couple had three children, but the marriage wasn’t built to last. Mwangi divorced her, saying that she was  “too strong-minded for a woman,” a sentiment we often hear when referring to strong female leaders, and that he was “unable to control her.” 

Even her children knew about their mother’s passion for justice. One of her sons said his mother “had a fire inside.”

To supplement her income, Dr. Maathai took a 6-month position with the Economic Commission for Africa. The position required extensive travel, so Dr. Maathai left her children with her ex-husband and hit the road.

She became even more politically active, campaigning against government land grabs and rigged allocation of forests. She advocated for citizens to “embrace not only their rights but also their responsibilities,” and argued that the government needed to listen to its people. Citizens had a right to clean drinking water and food that wasn’t poisoned. 

Government officials did not like her at all. Authoritarian President Daniel arap Moi called Dr. Wangari Maathi “a mad woman” and “a threat to the order and security of the country.” Then he had her arrested.

When she made bail, Dr. Maathai took part in a hunger strike in Freedom Park, where she and others planted “peace trees” and demanded the release of all political prisoners. Arap Moi sent in the police to beat the protesters within an inch of their lives. Dr. Maathai was hospitalized, but recovered and returned to her activism almost immediately.

Dr. Maathai had a duty to her people and her world. The devastation to the environment was clearly linked to the poverty of everyday citizens. Humanity and the earth are inextricably linked as she pointed out in one of her impassioned speeches: “Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own—indeed to embrace the whole of creation in all its diversity, beauty, and wonder. Recognizing that sustainable development, democracy and peace are indivisible is an idea whose time has come.”

Change came several years later.

In 2002, the corrupt regime of despot Daniel arap Moi finally came to an end. The same year, Dr. Maathai was elected to Kenya’s Parliament as part of the National Rainbow Coalition, with an overwhelming 98 percent of the vote. Next, she served as assistant minister for environment and natural resources.

“It’s the little things citizens do. That’s what will make the difference. My little thing is planting trees,” Dr. Maathai said.

However, the world didn’t think this work was such a little thing.

In 2004, much to her surprise, Dr. Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.” She became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize.

The committee made a unique choice, connecting environmental work with peace. But they believed in Dr. Maathai’s idea: when vital resources are shared equitably, peace follows. She believed that environmental protection was worthy of continued struggle, and she had dedicated her life to it.

Showered with honors and tirelessly serving on committees, commissions, and panels, Dr. Maathai also founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, which combines academic research in agriculture, land use, and forestry with information on resource-based conflict and peace studies. “We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk,” Dr. Maathai said adamantly.

Dr. Wangari Maathai spent the rest of her career writing, speaking, and advocating for the planet and the rights of those who populate it. She was a pioneer in environmental rights and a crusader for freedom. She died at the age of 71 in 2011, but she will never be forgotten. Dr. Maathai was a true visionary, an effective leader who broke barriers with her strong ethical stance and courage.