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date: 25 April 2019

Maathai, Wangari

A Dictionary of African Politics

Nicholas Cheeseman

Maathai, Wangari (1940–2011) 

Environmental activist, founder of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Maathai was the first female scholar to receive a doctorate in Kenya and subsequently became the first female professor. While chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi, Maathai campaigned for equal benefits for female members of staff and was extremely active within civil society, becoming the direct of the Kenya Red Cross Society in 1973 and joining the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). It was around this time that Maathai’s ideas increasingly began to link environmental concerns with broader social and political issues. In 1969, Wangari Muta (as she liked to be known at the time) had married Mwangi Maathai. In 1974, he won election to parliament to represent the Lang’ata constituency on the basis of a campaign that placed great emphasis on the need to provide jobs and build a sustainable economy. Wangari Maathai has said that this focus encouraged her to connect her own environmental concerns to broader political and economic issues. In response, she founded Envirocare Ltd, a business that sought to plant trees as a way of simultaneously promoting environmental conservation while creating employment for local communities. Although Envirocare ultimately failed and she separated from her husband in 1977, Maathai remained committed to these ideas and subsequently persuaded the council of the NCWK to support a tree-planting programme. This led to a march to plant seven trees in Nairobi on World Environment Day in June 1977, which in turn laid the foundation for the evolution of the GBM. In the 1980s, Maathai’s growing prominence and demand for an end to land grabbing and human rights abuses increasingly brought her into conflict with the government. Consequently, her efforts to enter mainstream politics were blocked, and she emerged as one of the strongest critics of President Daniel arap Moi’s one-party state. As domestic and international pressure for political reform began to build, Maathai took part in a hunger strike in 1992 to demand the release of political prisoners. When the police acted to forcibly remove the protesters, Maathai was badly beaten and hospitalized. Despite this, she continued to campaign against environmental and human rights abuses and to play an active role in political life. In 2002, a decade after multiparty politics was legalized, Maathai won election to the National Assembly as part of the National Rainbow Coalition (NaRC) opposition that also captured the presidency, bringing about Kenya’s first democratic transfer of power through the ballot box. Two years later, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to promote ‘sustainable development, democracy and peace’. Maathai died in Kenya on 25 September 2011 while undergoing treatment for ovarian cancer, but many of the organizations that she contributed to and inspired continue to operate.