Our Thoreau muse this month is the internationally renowned environmentalist, women’s rights activist and Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai.
After exemplary performance in her primary and high school education in Kenya, Maathai was awarded a scholarship to study in the US where she completed college, attained a bachelor of science degree and a master’s in biology. After studying and working in Germany, Maathai returned to Kenya and in 1971 she become the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD.
Throughout the 70s and despite having a young family, Maathai worked relentlessly for women’s rights and the environment. She played leading roles in the Kenya Red Cross Society, United Nations Environment Program (UNEP),the National Council for Women of Kenya (NCWK) and most significantly her Green Belt Movement which she set up to employ women to plant native tree nurseries throughout the country.
After her attempt to run for Kenyan Parliament was thwarted by the Government on dubious legal grounds in 1979, she threw herself into her Green Belt Movement and with the backing of the UN expanded it throughout Africa to become the Pan-African Green Belt Movement.
Throughout the late 80s and 90s Maathai’s movement fought the oppressive Kenyan government, seeking to unite the fractious opposition parties in order to foster free and fair elections. She survived imprisonment and death threats - at times in hiding - and was instrumental in bringing the world’s attention to the actions of the vicious regime.
In 2002 she was finally elected to Parliament as part of the Rainbow Opposition Coalition and was appointed Minister for Environment and Natural Resources. She was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her ‘contribution to sustainable development and peace’.
We pay homage to this amazing lady for her persistence in the face of brutal political oppression and for inspiring women, not only in Kenya, but throughout Africa and around the world.