Leading Lady : Wangari Maathai

"The environment and the economy are really both two sides of the same coin. If we cannot sustain the environment, we cannot sustain ourselves"

In 2004, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made a historic decision by awarding Wangari Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai was the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the honor, though some questioned the connection between the environment and peace. To Maathai, the relationship was clear: the degradation of natural resources creates shortages, shortages elicit competition, and competition leads to conflict - locally and globally.

Maathai was born in 1940 in the central highlands of Kenya. The family home was a traditional mud-walled hut, and she spent her earliest years performing domestic tasks alongside her mother, learning to respect the earth. When Maathai was 7, her brother asked a question that would change her life: "How come Wangari doesn't go to school like the rest of us?" It was not common for girls to be educated, but Wangari started school the next year. In 1960, she won a scholarship through the Kennedy Airlift Program to attend college in the United States and later went on to become the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.

By the time Maathai returned to Kenya, the abundant environment of her childhood had been decimated by deforestation. Kenyan women no longer had firewood, clean water, or the ability to cook traditional food, and their children suffered from illness and disease due to malnutrition. Because of her education, Maathai understood what the rural women did not - that the root of their daily problems were environmental problems. Influenced by the civil rights movement from her time spent in America, she knew she must take action.

Founded by Maathai in 1977, the Green Belt Movement started as a tree planting campaign but grew into a pro-democracy movement. As women learned to collect seeds and propagate trees, they began to view public lands as something worth protecting. Rural communities mobilized in protest against the government's mismanagement of resources and began participating in elections. Maathai was publicly condemned, and members were beaten or jailed, but eventually, leadership changed. The Green Belt Movement is responsible for re-establishing indigenous crops and planting over 50 million trees. Through the Green Belt Movement and her activism, Maathai has empowered thousands of women to reclaim the values of their culture. - Kelly Longhurst


Photo Credit : Wendy Stone