Wangari Maathai: An Environmental Icon

Wangari Maathai was born in 1940 in the village of Ihithe in Kenya. In 1960, she was one of 300 Kenyans selected to study in the US under the Airlift Africa programme which aimed to make education in Western nations available to promising Kenyan students. As part of the programme, she received a scholarship to study Biology in Kansas and later studied for a masters in Biology at the University of Pittsburgh. 

She later returned to Kenya and graduated with a PhD in 1971 from the University of Nairobi. This was a historic achievement as she became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn such a title. Maathai continued to make history as she was the first woman to become chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor.

Maathai was later the chairwoman of the National Council of Women of Kenya. Using her position of influence, she floated the idea of community tree planting. This later developed into the Green Belt Movement which reduces poverty and aids the environment by planting trees.

Her achievements throughout her life were numerous – she was internationally recognised for struggling for democracy, human rights and environmental issues. She served in Kenya’s Parliament as Assistant Minister for Environment and National Resources from 2003-2007.

The UN named Professor Maathai as a UN Messenger of Peace in recognition of all her hard work to aid the environment. She was also the first female, African recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace”.

Maathai is dually inspirational, both as an environmental icon but also as an outspoken female. Her research was seen as subversive in a patriarchal culture where women did not often step outside of their prescriptive role. In having the confidence to do so, she not only completed some amazing work but demonstrated an admirable strength and courage that is inspirational to all women.

Wangari Maathai is an amazing example of someone committed to saving our planet. Coming from humble roots, she worked extremely hard to receive amazing opportunities and use those for the greater good. We should take her lead in our positions of relative privilege and do what we can to continue her legacy of environmental activism. In 2019, it is more important than ever that we do so, with our own SU recently calling a ‘Climate Emergency’. We should all have the courage to make a conscious effort to save our planet and protect our environment while we still can.