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Environmentalist Dedicates her Life to Preserving the Earth through Community

Wangari Maathai was born in April 1, 1940 in Kenya to a Kikuyu (also known as Agĩkũyũ) family, the largest ethnic group in the country. The term Kikuyu translates to “large sycamore tree,” and Agĩkũyũ translates to “children of the huge sycamore.” This caring relationship to the earth written into the name of the group from which the prominent environmentalist comes from is not a coincidence. Wangari Maathai was raised to nurture the earth that nurtures her — and the rest of us.

Wangari Maathai speaks about the Green Belt Movement.

Maathai’s study of life began early, and she pursued this interest through adulthood. She studied biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas obtaining a bachelor degree in 1964. She then obtained a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in veterinary anatomy from the University College of Nairobi. Maathai become the first woman in east and central Africa to receive a Ph.D in 1971. Shortly after graduating, Maathai became a professor and chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy. She was also the first women to hold such positions. As an educator, Maathai never lost touch of her initial inspirations: community and a love of the earth. While involved with the National Council of Women, Professor Maathai introduced the idea of community-based tree planting. This idea quickly flowered into a movement.

Wangari Maathai's profile.

The Green Belt Movement seeks to combat poverty and conserve the earth through community based tree planting. After being very successful, the movement expanded. Forty-five representatives from fifteen African countries travelled to Kenya to learn how to develop similar programs. The success of Maathai’s movement led her to win numerous awards. In 1991, Maathai won the Goldman Environmental Prize, an award given to grassroots environmental activists. Wanting to have a more impact, she got involved in politics.

In 1992, Maathai was jailed after leading a protest against political corruption in Kenya. She was targeted for her involvement with the pro-democracy group the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy, a group established to ensure that every Kenyan had their voice heard. Maathai continued her activism after her release. She went on a hunger strike to force the Kenyan government to free its political prisoners. In 2004, the activist was recognized by the international community with the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai was the first African women to win the prize.

Wangari Maathai Nobel Peace Prize lecture.

For Maathai, her work in conservation and politics were connected—each was part of her effort to leave behind a livable and hospitable world. Speaking of one of the sites where the Green Belt Movement planted trees, Maathai talks of her inspiration: “When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one-day walk there.”

Wangari Maathai died on September 25, 2011, but her legacy lives on.

Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.

YouTube Aminata Sy

Email Aminata Sy at

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