Updated: Dec 28, 2020
Wangarĩ Muta Maathai ( 1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011), A Kenyan social, environmental, and political activist, was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Prize.
Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District. When she finished her studies in 1956, she was placed first in her class and was awarded admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School in Limuru.
She received a Bachelor's degree from Mount St. Scholastica and a Master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh as a recipient of the Kennedy Airlift in the United States. Upon his return to Kenya, Maathai dropped her forename,preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangarĩ Muta. When she arrived at the university to start her new career, she was informed that the placement had been given to someone else. Maathai belived that this was due to gender and tribal prejudice.
Professor Reinhold Hofmann, from the University of Giessen, Germany, offered her a position as a research assistant in the microanatomy department. In 1967, at the insistence of Professor Hofmann, she moved to the University of Giessen, Germany, in search of her doctorate. She learned at Giessen and at the University of Munich.
“There are opportunities even in the most difficult moments.”
― Wangari Maathai, Unbowed
In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to earn a Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi.
Maathai continued to teach in Nairobi, becoming a senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chairing the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976, and an associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman to be assigned to any of these offices in Nairobi. During this period, she advocated for equitable benefits for women employed as university workers.
Maathai was a founder of several organizations, a member of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, and became its director in 1973. She was a member of the Kenya University Women's Association. Through her work in these numerous charitable organizations, Maathai became aware that the root of most of Kenya's problems was environmental degradation.
It helped to grow this concept into a large grassroots group, the Green Belt Movement (GBM), whose primary emphasis is on poverty reduction and environmental protection through tree planting.
Professor Maathai has been globally recognized for her fight for freedom, civil rights, and environmental justice and has worked on the board of several organizations. She talked to the UN on a number of occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special meetings of the General Assembly during the five-year review of the Earth Summit. She has worked on the Committee on Global Governance and the Commission for the Future.
Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace." Maathai was the first African woman to receive the prestigious award. From 1901 to 2018, only 52 Nobel Prizes were awarded to women, 852 Nobel Prizes were awarded to men. Via her tremendous contributions, Wangari Maathai became the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive the award.
Professor Maathai represented the Tetu constituency in the Kenyan Parliament (2002–2007) and served as Deputy Minister of Environment and Natural Resources in the ninth Kenyan Parliament (2003–2007). In 2005, she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador to the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem.
Professor Maathai died of ovarian cancer at the age of 71 on 25 September 2011. Memorial services have been held in Kenya, New York, San Francisco, and London.