Wangari Maathai: The first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize

It’s International Women’s Day! And to kick things off, there’s someone I’d like you to meet. A hero of mine who, if I had the chance, I would love to sit down with and get to know (and adopt her as my favorite auntie). Meet: Wangari Maathai, an environmentalist, activist, professor, and the first African woman to ever win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Wangari Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940 and grew up in the countryside. As a little girl, she had a deep, almost spiritual connection to the earth. In her memoir “Unbowed”, she recalled having recurring dreams of running by a stream in her village, a stream that in actuality, was no longer there. This could have been a taunting nightmare for someone like her, but this dream planted a seed that, over time, grew in lands well beyond her native soil. 

As a young woman, she studied Biological Sciences at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, graduating in 1964. She got her master’s at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966 and eventually, got her Phd from the University of Nairobi in 1971, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. Later, she became a professor there and chair of the Department of Veterinary Biology.

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Maathai was not just moved by the intricacies of biological systems, cells, and organisms, but by our great planet in full. And she cared about the people who worked the land, their welfare and how they played into larger systems of power and privilege.

She was deeply ingrained in her community and knew that, like in so many countries, women often performed the majority of the agriculture and housework, working with the land the most and yet, benefiting the least economically.

Rural women started reporting that in some areas, streams were drying up. Government-backed deforestation contributed heavily to this because as trees were cut down and roots removed, the soil became less stable. Meaning that when it rained, water was more likely to run off instead of staying in the soil and nurturing it. And as rainwater left the soil, it ran into streams at a faster, unsustainable rate—increasing their flow and ultimately, drying them up faster. All this left soil less fertile, making it harder to grow food, and life-giving water harder to find. Plus, lack of trees meant that women had to travel farther distances to find wood for cooking and fuel. And for some women, walking farther distances, especially if alone, meant increased danger and unwanted exposure.

Maathai knew about these struggles, and knew that compounding all of this was a system in which women profited less from their labor than men, making their positions all the more precarious. And now, if food was harder to grow, women in markets had less to sell.

This was all interconnected: the land and the systems that governed it were hurting and needed balance. Maathai saw that gender equity and environmentalism had to work together.

“Nobody would have bothered me if all I did was to encourage women to plant trees, but I started seeing the linkages between the problems that we were dealing with and the root causes of environmental degradation. And one of those root causes was misgovernance.”

Wangari Maathai became politically active, rallying for stronger democratic systems that better represented everyday people and crying out against corruption and poor governance, including what she saw as unjust land grabs that benefited the few, and hurt the many.

In 1976, she joined the National Council of Women of Kenya. And while there, one year later, she created The Green Belt Movement, an initiative that helped women grow their own seedlings to replant trees all over the country. The movement also ran seminars on civic engagement, environmental education, economic empowerment, and more. And it didn’t shy away from controversy, either, calling out politicians who sold off tracts of land under the table and who stashed away money for environmental restoration for themselves. 

As time went on, Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement expanded their message to tackle global climate change more broadly, campaigning for environmental protection across African countries like Tanzania, Uganda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, and more through the creation of the Pan African Green Belt Network. Maathai also fought for the preservation of rainforests in the Congo Basin, a region that has some of the largest and most biodiverse rainforests on earth. Later, she partnered with the United Nations for the Billion Tree Campaign, an initiative that was directly inspired by her work. 

She garnered numerous accolades in her life, and in 2004, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was the first African woman to receive such a distinction.

Wangari Maathai passed away in 2011, leaving behind a bold and powerful legacy, one which we all benefit from today and will always be remembered.

Trees are living symbols of hope. A tree has roots in the soil yet reaches to the sky. It tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded and that no matter how high we go it is from our roots that we draw sustenance. It is a reminder to all of us who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from. “


Wangari Maathai is one of my favorite people. I first heard of her when I was a college. I was an African Studies minor and took a class where we exclusively read autobiographies and biographies by African women, including “Unbowed”, Wangari Maathai’s memoir. I was immediately so moved and struck by it, especially since earlier that year, I took a class about the unique ways climate change is already impacting the African continent (which led me to being vegetarian for three years….I’m no longer vegetarian, I am sorry to report).

The face of environmental justice is often white-washed, leaving activists, past and present, from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) communities behind when historically, it’s consistently been these communities who have fought hardest for our planet. Spread the word about Wangari Maathai’s legacy, and those of other women who have shaped the world.

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Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment and share this with a friend if you think it’s worthwhile!

— Cynthia Betubiza. March 8, 2022.

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