Wangari Maathai devoted her life to protecting our planet and serving its people. As an academic, an activist, and the founder of the Green Belt Movement, Wangari believed that saving our planet and changing our world went hand in hand. Through her work with the Green Belt movement, Wangari provided thousands of women with job training and opportunities and was responsible for the planting of millions of trees in her native Kenya. Wangari died of ovarian cancer in 2011, but not before leaving a substantial mark on the world she loved so much.

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground… That time is now.”

Wangari was born in a small village in Kenya in 1940. When she was eight years old, her family decided to send her to school. This was an unusual opportunity for girls in Kenya at this time, but Wangari soon began to excel academically. In 1960, she earned a scholarship that allowed her to travel to the United States and attend college. She studied at a small Catholic school in Kansas where, in 1964, she earned her bachelor’s degree in biology. From there, she moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned a master’s degree in biological sciences.

After completing her master’s degree, Wangari briefly studied in Germany before returning to Africa, where she continued her education at the University of Nairobi in her home country of Kenya. In 1971, she earned her doctorate in veterinary anatomy, making her the first woman in all of East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She continued to make history throughout her career in academics, eventually becoming the first woman in the region to chair a department and the first to become an associate professor.

In addition to her work as a professor, Wangari was also extremely active with the National Council of Women. In 1976, the same year she began chairing the Veterinary Anatomy department at the University of Nairobi, Wangari began talking to the Council of Women about an idea that would form the basis of the Green Belt Movement.

“Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted, so we decided to solve both problems together.”

Troubled by both the extreme poverty facing women in Kenya and the deforestation that threatened to destroy her country’s environment, Wangari decided to try and solve both problems by creating a grassroots organization that would train and pay women to plant trees on their farms, as well as at their churches and schools. This small, grassroots movement, which focused on increasing conservation and decreasing poverty, grew astronomically, ultimately helping almost 900,000 women and planting more than 30 million trees. Less than 10 years after its founding, the Green Belt Movement created the Pan African Green Belt Network, which brought the principles of the Green Belt Movement to other African countries and helped them develop similar tree planting initiatives.

“You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

Wangari has received numerous awards, accolades, and honorary doctorates as a result of her work as an activist. She won the Conservation Scientist of the Year award, the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership, the Goldman Environmental Prize, The French Legion of Honor, and the Woman of the World award. Most notably, in 2004 she was honored with the Nobel Prize. She was the first African woman to receive such an honor.

“We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”

Wangari lost her battle with ovarian cancer in 2011, but her memory lives on in the women whose lives she changed and the forests she saved.

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Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.
Will Elliott

Image by Will Elliott

Will Elliott is a comic-artist and illustrator hailing from rural Buckinghamshire. He's currently writing and drawing a regular comic series, "Opera Strip" for Sinfini Music (amongst other things).