Professor Wangari Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011) was born in Nyeri, Kenya. She graduated in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas in 1964. In 1966, she got her Master of Science degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
Maathai later did her doctoral studies in Germany and at the University of Nairobi. She obtained her PhD at the University of Nairobi in 1971 where she also taught veterinary anatomy. Her doctoral degree earned her a place in history as the first woman PhD holder in East and Central Africa. In 1976, Wangari Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and after that an associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in the region to attain these positions.
Professor Wangari Maathai introduced her tree-planting concept to ordinary citizens in 1976. She later developed it into the now-famous Green Belt Movement. A grassroots organisation, the Green Belt Movement works through women’s groups. They plant trees to conserve the environment and improve the quality of life. The movement managed to plant over 30 million trees on their farms, in schools, and in church compounds.
In 1998, Professor Maathai campaigned tirelessly against land grabbing and the theft of public forests. She has for this reason become an international figure for her persistent struggle for environmental conservation, among many other achievements.
Her fight against land grabbing and the degradation of Kenya’s ecosystem today preserves a portion of Kenya’s rich fauna and flora. As a result, this ecosystem now attracts billions of dollars in foreign exchange. Tourists from all over the world come to enjoy our diverse ecosystems.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) listed Professor Maathai in the Global 500 Hall of Fame. She also appeared in the 100 Heroines of the World list. In June 1997, Earth Times elected Professor Maathai as one of 100 people in the world who have made a difference in the environmental arena.
Wangari received honorary doctoral degrees from several institutions around the world because of her work. Some of them include the Williams College in Massachusetts (1990), Hobart and William Smith Colleges (1994), the University of Norway (1997) and Yale University (2004).
Professor Maathai served on the boards of several organisations. She sat on the board of the Women’s Environment and Development Organisation (WEDO), Green Cross International, Environment Liaison Centre International and the WorldWIDE Network of Women in Environmental Work. In December 2002, Professor Maathai due to her work became Kenya’s Assistant Minister for Environment.
In 2005 11 African heads of state whose countries are in the Congo Basin, appointed Wangari Maathai as a Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. This was an advocacy role for the conservation and protection of this vital ecosystem. In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac awarded Wangari Maathai France’s highest honour, the Legion d’Honneur.
The decoration ceremony took place in Paris in April 2006. The French Minister of Environment and Sustainable Development, Nelly Olin presided over the ceremony. Consequently, in 2004, Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.
Wangari Maathai joins Kenya Geographic’s Hall of Fame for her contribution to saving a piece of Kenya’s priceless ecosystem. Her fight, sometimes radical, is near legendary. We salute this great matriarch of Africa and Kenyan heroin for her work to make and keep Kenya green. Indeed, we enjoy places like the Karura Forest because of her.
Wangari Maathai died on 25 September 2011 at the Nairobi Hospital because of complications arising from ovarian cancer. Her cremation took place at the Kariokor Crematorium on Saturday 8, 2011 in a private funeral.