Wangari Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in a traditional mud-walled house with no electricity or running water. It was located in Ihithe, a small village in the central highlands of what was then British Kenya… the third of six children born to Muta Njugi and Wanjiru Kichibo.
Her parents were peasant farmers, members of the Kikuyu community, one of the fourty-two ethnic groups in Kenya. They lived on land owned by British settler D. N. Neylan, abundant with large well-watered fields of maize, beans, wheat, and vegetables. While the family had no title to the land, they were able to build housing, and cultivate crops on the plot apportioned to them. They kept cattle, goats and sheep. “Hunger was virtually unknown. The soil was rich, dark red-brown, and moist”. Yet in her memoir, Unbowed, she describes the family as being glorified slaves. While they were able grow crops and sell their harvest, their share of the profits were relatively small compared to that of the settler, Mr. Neylan.
Wangari spent the first four years of primary education attending Ihite primary school, the next four were at Mathari Girls intermediate school, and she’d completed high school at Loreto Convent Limuru Girls.
“I grew up knowing that I was Kikuyu and that the other communities were different from us. I would, though, overhear the adults around me expressing their views about some of our differences. If, for example, one of the women was very well dressed, they would ask her with a smile, 'Where are you going, smartly dressed like a Luo?' Other people were known to expect things for free. These ethnic biases, many of which were planted early in one’s childhood, became amplified and were embraced by national political rhetoric. They are still used today to divide Kenyans from one another.”
A scholarship from Catholic School of Nyeri made it possible to join the Kennedy lift of the 1960s which benefited over 300 young Kenyans. As a result, she attended Mount St. Scholastica College, where she pursed a liberal arts education, majoring in biological sciences and later pursued a masters from University of Pittsburgh in biological sciences where she gained skills in tissue processing and developmental autonomy.
She founded the Green Belt Movement (GBM) in 1977 and there mobilized poor women to plant nearly 30 million trees. Women’s groups received garden tools, fencing materials, water tanks, pipes, and manure.
As part of the GBM, she encouraged communities to plant indigenous trees and long-lasting fruit trees because these have characteristics such as well-spread root systems, thick trunks, widespread branches, foliage and good shade.
"One can ask community members to list the various ways that their families used the local biodiversity (e.g., as medicine, for construction, for traditional value and spiritual based ceremonies, as food). Such participatory discussions bring indigenous trees back to into communities daily lives, and helps them to perceive the environment as a real and living part of their communal life. Yet another way is to discuss the possibility of attracting birds and other animals back to a given area through forestation, for the sake of current and future generations," she wrote.
The Green Belt Movement developed what is known as the Ten-Step Procedure as its methodology.
- Information dissemination to raise public awareness and establish contact with groups.
- Group formation.
- Locating a tree-nursery site and registration of tree-nursery groups.
- Physical establishment of a tree nursery.
- Reporting the progress of the nursery.
- Promotion of tree planting to the community and digging of holes.
- Establishment of pubic and private green belts.
- Planting trees and follow-up.
- First follow-up for seedlings.
- Second follow-up and payment of groups.
Wangari Maathai was the first woman from Africa honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 and the first woman in East and Central African to earn a doctorate degree.
“Every African, from the head of state to the sustenance farmer, needs to embrace cultures of honest, hard work, fairness, and justice, as well as the riches—cultural, spiritual, and material—of their continent.”
She died September 25, 2011 from ovarian cancer, leaving behind three children and a grandchild.
I was born as an old world was passing away.
- Maathai, Wangari. Green Belt Movement. Lantern Books, 2004.
- Maathai, Wangari. The Challenge for Africa. Pantheon Books, 2009.
- Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed: A Memoir. Knopf, 2006.
- “The Nobel Peace Prize 2004.” NobelPrize.org,