The village girl who became a Nobel Peace Prize winner – The incredible story Wangari Muta Maathai, first black woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize

Wangari Muta Maathai, a Kenyan, founded the Green Belt Movement and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She became the first African woman and the first black woman to win the Noble Peace Prize. Maathai’s Green Belt Movement benefited over 900,000 women in Africa and planted over 30 million trees. She surmounted political and personal challenges to be a change agent for her children, peers, and all women.

In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now – Wangari Muta Maathi

As an environmentalist and ecologist who was passionate to make a change, her activism began with a dream as a youngster while growing up in rural Kenya. She used to have dreams about running by a stream that no longer existed, and it was this dream that prompted her to create an environmental grassroots movement that changed the lives of countless women and children. Despite the fact that some people, including the Kenyan government, saw her candour and criticism as harmful and unnecessary to Kenyan citizens, she pursued her passion and left a lasting impression on the world, as well as on her loved ones and family.

Wangari Muta Maathi

Wangari Muta Maathai was born in the rural Kenyan town of Nyeri in 1940. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964), a master’s degree in science from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), and doctoral studies in Germany and Nairobi before earning a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in 1971, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. Professor Maathai became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor in 1976 and 1977, respectively, making her the first woman in East and Central Africa to acquire a doctorate degree. She was the first woman in the region to hold those posts in both situations.

Despite the challenges, Maathai, an African woman from a poor rural family, was able to get her education and set a precedent for African women. Maathai served as the chairman of the National Council of Women from 1981 until 1987. She was in this position when she proposed that people grow trees to help them. This concept grew into the green belt movement, a grassroots group dedicated to planting trees in order to protect the environment and improve people’s quality of life. Kenyan women complained that their streams had dried up, their food source had decreased, and they had to trek long distances to obtain firewood for food and supplies.

Maathai would pay underprivileged and poor women to reforest Kenya by planting trees. The movement’s purpose is to empower communities via environmental management (see http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/ for more details). This type of community empowerment is a type of feminist activity that focuses on women’s and children’s issues. It was so powerful and successful that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her commitment to environmental sustainability, democracy, and peace, fueling her desire to continue to speak out against the intimate link between environmental deterioration and poverty.

Her outspokenness did not go over well with everyone, including Kenya’s then-president. He despised her movement, labelling it “subversive,” and ordered police to beat her unconscious during a protest where she had been unfairly arrested. Her personal life was in shambles at the same time as her professional life. Mwangi, her husband, who she married in 1969, told her several times that she was too strong-willed for a woman and that he couldn’t manage her. She divorced her husband in 1977 since she didn’t agree with him.

The divorce was costly, and she struggled to sustain herself and her children on a low-wage job due to lawyer fees and the loss of her husband’s income. Despite this, she was able to secure employment with the United Nations. She was unable to bring her children with her due to the extensive travel required. She had to make the difficult decision to send her children to her ex-husband in order to secure the job. Throughout the remainder of her employment, she paid them numerous visits. Despite the hurdles, she moved forward in her personal and political life and continued to have an impact on her country.

In 2002, she was elected to parliament with 98% of the vote and was appointed Assistant Minister of Environment, Natural Resources, and Wildlife in Kenya by the president.  In 2011, Maathai died of cancer.  She is survived by three children and a granddaughter.

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