Wangari Maathai

The Blue Marble, the picture that sparked the modern environmental activism movement. By showing our Earth in a completely new perspective, it gave people a new appreciation to this place we call home. The movement inspired thousands of people around the globe to start taking leadership, including the first African woman and environmentalist to win a Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai.

Born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe, a colony of Kenya, Maathai didn’t attend school until she was past the age of 8. At the age of 11, Maathai was sent to a boarding school where she became fluent in English, which allowed her to further her education. After graduating from high school, Maathai was accepted into the Kennedy Airlift program, a program that selected 300 Kenyans to receive scholarships to study at US colleges.


 Maathai hugging some of her trees that she plants decades ago. Photo Credit :

Maathai graduated with her Bachelors degree from Benedictine college in Kansas, where she majored in biology. After graduation, Maathai furthered her education with a Master’s in biological sciences from the University of Pittsburgh. It is here, in Pittsburgh, where she first experienced environmental restoration, when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution. Taking this love for the environment back to Nairobi, she was appointed assistant lecturer at the University of Nairobi, where she would receive her doctorate in veterinary anatomy.

After a divorce in her personal life and losing her job, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a movement in Kenya that incorporated advocacy and empowerment for women, eco-tourism, conservation, and economic development. The movement helped organize women in rural Kenya to plant trees, combat deforestation, stop soil erosion, and helped restore the main source of fuel for cooking all while generating income. This movement challenged the Kenyan government because the single-party regime opposed many of the movement’s positions regarding democratic rights. A long battle, lasting nearly 20 years, between the Green Movement and the government, but Maathai kept pushing her organization forward.

While in opposition to the government’s interests, the Green Belt Movement accomplished many great feats. In the 1980’s, the movement established over 600 tree nurseries and approximately 2,000 public green belts, areas that protect natural environments,  carrying 1,000 tree seedlings on each green belt. In 2008, the movement was successful enough to pledge support for the Billion Tree Campaign. Overall, the movement has planted more than 51 million trees and has trained over 30,000 women in forestry, food processing, bee-keeping and other trades that help earn income while preserving their lands and resources.


In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. She was the first African woman and environmentalist to win Nobel peace prize. Maathai passed away in 2011 at the age of 71 but, her life work of environmental conservation and women’s rights in Kenya will not be forgotten.