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Wangari Maathai
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Wangari Maathai: When A Tree Becomes A Symbol For The Democratic Struggle

Wangari Maathai: When A Tree Becomes A Symbol For The Democratic Struggle

Today we bring you the story of Wangari Maathai, a woman whose bravery knows no bounds. She is the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace prize and is internationally known for her persistent fight against bad governance and environmental degradation.

Wangari Maathai is an inspiration for young women around the globe to fight for what they believe in. We are proud to share her story as part of our “Smart Girls.”

Early Life

Wangari Maathai was born on 1st April 1940 in a small village in Nyeri, Kenya. At age 11 she joined a catholic boarding school. Studying at the school sheltered her from the Mau Mau war – a rebellion by the locals against the British colonial power in Kenya at the time. The uprising forced her family out of their home and made them seek shelter in emergency villages.

In 1956, she completed her primary school education and was later admitted to a catholic high school. Four years later, she received a scholarship and joined Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, where she majored in Biology.

She went on to study for her postgraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh, earning her master’s in Biology in 1966. During her time at Pittsburgh university, she first experienced the concept of environmental conservation when the local environmental groups in Pittsburgh at the time pushed to eradicate air pollution in the city.

Family Life

After completing her studies in the United States, Wangari Maathai immediately moved back to Kenya. In 1967, she traveled to Germany to pursue her doctorate degree at the Universities of Giessen and Munich.

In 1969 she returned home and got married to her long-time boyfriend. She received her doctorate in Veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi in 1971, becoming the very first East African woman to receive a Ph.D.

The Green Movement: The Fight For Women’s Rights & Sustainable Development

In 1977 Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement as a result of numerous environmental concerns brought to her attention by Kenyan women living in rural areas. The movement would give women basic needs like fuel, food, and shelter to support children and household needs. The movement mobilized the masses to challenge widespread abuse of power, corruption, and environmental mismanagement.

In October 1989, news reached Maathai that there was a plan underway to construct a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park, a major park in Nairobi. A park home to great biodiversity created a beautiful and serene environment in the city for the locals.

Maathai wrote numerous letters in protest to leaders, including the Kenyan President at the time and notably the British High Commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene and stop building construction.

The government refused to respond and termed her a mad woman. The government tried to frustrate her by shutting down her Green Belt Movement, forcing her to move their operations into her home. Her protests, letters, and media coverage attracted the worldwide community forcing foreign investors to cancel the project in January 1990. This move to cancel the project was a true insight into Wangari’s determination and helped bring recognition, building her reputation as an inspiration to women everywhere.

Trees of Peace and Democracy

In 1992 Maathai was arrested and charged with conducting illegal pro-democracy activities and treason, among other accusations and later imprisoned. However, she was released on bail due to pressure from the international community.

After being released from prison, she led a group of protesters on a 4-day hunger strike to make the government release political prisoners. These women, led by Wangari, would plant trees of peace to demand the release of prisoners of conscience and a peaceful transition to democracy.

The police descended upon the protesters with violence, leaving Wangari Maathai and other protesters hospitalized. She continued to lead the protests until the political prisoners were finally released in early 1993.

In 2002, all of Wangari Maathai’s inspirational work came to light as the Green Belt movement and other civil societies enabled Kenya to transition into a Democratic state and laid the foundation for a more stable society.

The Nobel Peace Prize

Wangari also won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace. Making her the first woman to win the prestigious award.

She continued her noble work into the later years of 2009. Wangari Maathai died on 25th September 2011 after suffering from ovarian cancer. However, her legacy continues in the hearts of rural women, people of every faith, heads of state, and those in her community and across continents. Wangari is a beautiful example of how one woman can be a force for change. For this, we consider Wangari Maathai an inspiration to young women and one of our SmartGirls!

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Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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