Wangari Muta Maathai (1940–2011)

Kenyan environmental activist who helped end a dictator’s reign

I have been to the Freedom Corner at Uhuru Park in Nairobi, Kenya where Wangari Maathai engaged in nonviolent action to preserve a park for ordinary people in an urban metropolis in the face of a dictator who wanted to develop it for his own profit and that of his cronies. Her leadership and action played a major role in bringing an end to the Moi dictatorship. She was an environmentalist and a peacemaker, and my Kenyan friends are so proud she is one of theirs.
—Daniel Buttry

Wangari Maathai

British Chancellor of the Exchequer (later Prime Minister of the UK) Gordon Brown walks through the street of Nairobi with Wangari Maathai
DEMOSH/CC BY 2.0/Wikimedia Commons

Wangari Maathai was a woman of the earth, a woman of the trees, a woman of the waters, a woman of the Kenyan land she loved so much. But caring for the environment in a nation controlled by corporate greed, political corruption, and rampant tribalism required that she become a peacemaking activist as well. She founded the Green Belt Movement, which focused on planting trees and empowering women to be environmental and social change agents.

Her academic training was in the biological sciences in the U.S., Germany, and Kenya, which led to a teaching position at the University College of Nairobi, later to become the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in East Africa to receive a PhD. She married Mwangi Mathai, a politician who ran for a seat in the Kenyan Parliament, eventually winning.

Meanwhile Wangari’s activism began in the area of women’s rights, but as she worked in various organizations she became convinced that environmental degradation was at the root of Kenya’s problems. She explored ideas of how to address environmentalism and unemployment, particularly for women. Her initial project involving a business and tree nursery failed, but the experience sharpened her understanding of the situation and the need to network.

She had earlier joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). On June 5, 1977, World Environment Day, she led women of NCWK in a march from downtown Nairobi to a park on the edge of the city where they planted trees. This was the first Green Belt action, which eventually became the Green Belt Movement.

Meanwhile her personal life disintegrated as her husband found her too strong-minded for a woman. He used his power and connections in a brutal way that ended up with the court sending her to prison. Her lawyer got her out of the six-month sentence after 3 days. When her husband insisted she drop his surname, she responded by simply adding an extra a, taking the form she is known by now, Maathai.

She began to encounter opposition from people aligned with the dictatorial president of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi. First her leadership of NCWK was challenged, then the organization was destroyed my Moi supporters. She tried to run for Parliament, but lost her job and was deemed ineligible to run. The harassment against her for working on behalf of women’s rights independent of organizations formally controlled by Moi’s government left her career in a shambles and near bankruptcy.

Then she established a partnership with the Norwegian Forestry Society to rework the Green Belt Movement into a viable environmental project. The United Nations Voluntary Fund For Women provided seed money, and soon the Green Belt Movement hit its stride. They established projects with women developing their own seed nurseries and being paid a certain amount for each tree they planted and successfully nurtured. Stipends were also provided for the husbands and sons of these women to be the record-keepers. Maathai’s work was so successful and spread so broadly in Kenya that environmentalists from across Africa came to see what was happening and learn from her.

Moi’s government began to crack down on this growing movement, causing the Green Belt Movement to add pro-democracy work to its agenda. They registered voters and called for constitutional reform. The struggle came to a head in Uhuru Park, a huge green space in the center of Nairobi.

Moi arranged with some of his business associates to build a 60-story tower on land in Uhuru Park. Maathai began protesting with letters to various officials and business figures, expanding her advocacy also to international figures. Moi personally insulted Maathai repeatedly, calling her to be a proper woman in the African tradition, to respect men and be quiet. She was hardly quiet. As the ground-breaking for the development took place, the protests increased.

When word got out of planned arrests and even assassinations of various democracy leaders, including Maathai, she barricaded herself in her house. The police stormed the house, cut through the windows are put her in prison. An international outcry led to her release, but many other pro-democracy activists languished in the jails.

So Maathai began a hunger strike at a corner of the park that was then named Freedom Corner. Four days into the hunger strike the police attacked, knocking Maathai and 3 others unconscious. She was hospitalized due to her injuries. The hunger strike continued, moving from the park into the All Saints Cathedral across the street with the support of the Kenyan Anglican Archbishop. Eventually the political prisoners were all freed.

Maathai continued her environmental leadership, being a major speaker at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro in spite of the Kenyan government lobbying for her to be removed from the program. When democratic elections were finally accepted Maathai strongly urged unity among the opposition, however, the opposition candidates were too divided, allowing Moi to retain power. When post-election violence broke out on tribal lines, Maathai urged an end to the fighting and mobilized the Green Belt Movement to plant trees for peace.

There were many other political ups and downs. In the next election Moi was defeated, opening a new chapter of Kenyan history. Eventually Maathai also was elected to Parliament and became Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive this prestigious award. She died in 2011, leaving a monumental legacy for peace and environmentalism not only for Kenya and East Africa but for the entire world.

Additional Resources

Taking Root is documentary about Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. Check out the website for the film here.

The DVD is available on Amazon along with her memoir Unbowed and the children’s book Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees.

Taking Root Trailer

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