Wangari Maathai: Africa’s first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize

AJC Sepia Black History Month

Born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940, Wangari Maathai — born Wangari Muta — loved playing by the stream near her home, where she would go daily to fetch water. The sight of frog eggs floating in the stream captured her imagination, with her young mind believing she could grab the “beads” and make a beautiful necklace.

Years later, the stream dried up as a result of deforestation. She watched as locals, especially women, struggled, walking long distances to fetch water. Food, firewood and other essentials became a rarity.

»MORE: Read the full AJC Sepia Black History Month Series

That, among other experiences, brought out her passions — environmental conservation, women’s rights and social justice — which she fought for vigorously.

Her grassroots efforts resulted in a campaign that received recognition from the Norwegian Nobel Committee in 2004, which chose to honor her with the world’s most coveted award — the Nobel Peace Prize.

Credit: Bramm Lammers/AP

Credit: Bramm Lammers/AP

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Maathai broke barriers, becoming the first black African woman and environmentalist to win the peace prize.

The award came 30 years after her efforts to battle deforestation in Kenya and neighboring African countries through the Green Belt Movement. She engaged women in seed planting challenges, which she saw as a means to alleviate poverty and empower communities. According to the Green Belt Movement, more than 51 million trees have been planted as a result of Maathai's efforts.

“When we plant trees, we plant seeds of peace and hope,” she said.

Maathai fearlessly fought to protect forests and public land from being encroached upon by government operatives. She held fast to the mantra that environmental efforts are futile without the support of democratic governments. On the basis of that belief, she vied for office at a time when women shied away from venturing into politics.

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In one of her writings, titled Speak Truth to Power, Maathai equated her role to that of an interventionist, telling people to stand up to bad leadership. By speaking the truth to leadership and Kenyans, Maathai angered senior government officials — and, as a result, suffered intimidation and arrests.

Yet she persisted, winning some battles and losing others.

“Fortunately, my skin is thick, like an elephant’s. The more they abused and ridiculed me, the more they hardened me. I know I was right, and they were wrong,” she wrote in her article.

Maathai’s efforts have earned her a plethora of prestigious global awards, including the 2009 NAACP Image Award, which she received alongside former Vice President Al Gore.

The success of her latter years was a culmination of events, tragic and glorious, that led to remarkable firsts for the fearless environmental activist.

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Her introduction to the United States came at a tense period when the civil rights movement was at its peak.

Maathai was among 300 Kenyan students, one of them former President Barack Obama's father, who benefited from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation scholarship to study in the U.S.

Maathai obtained her bachelor's degree in biology in 1964 from Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kan., and her master's degree in biology in 1965 from the University of Pittsburgh. The two colleges have planted a garden and erected a statue in her honor.

Driven by her belief in female empowerment, Maathai then went on to earn a doctorate in 1971 after her return to Kenya from the United States, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to achieve that academic distinction.

And until her death in 2011, Maathai continued to do her “little thing” — planting trees one seed at a time.

“When I see Uhuru Park (Freedom 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,” Maathai wrote in her book “Unbowed.”

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.