Visible Women

“Why Kenyan environmental activist Wangarĩ Maathai is my biggest inspiration”

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Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu
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Throughout Black History Month 2018, black women are discussing the women who inspire them on Here, Women’s March organiser Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu pays tribute to Wangarĩ Muta Maathai, the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Wangarĩ Muta Maathai was a woman of many firsts. She was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize; the first female scholar from East and Central Africa to have a doctorate degree (in biology); and the first female professor ever in her home country of Kenya. A mother of three, she was a political and environmental activist; a total badass and trailblazer.

Maathai was born on 1 April 1940 in Kenya – at the time a British colony – to a family of farmers from the Kikuyu tribe. A bright student, she earned a scholarship and was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College), the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Nairobi in Kenya.

In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organisation focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation and women’s rights. She saw tree-planting as part of a broader social and political movement that also focused on democracy, gender equality and international solidarity. Her grassroots campaign introduced Kenyan women to the mindset of thinking ecologically, and inspired them to plant trees in their local environments. 

Wangarĩ Maathai in her office in 2004, shortly after winning the Nobel Peace Prize 

Maathai’s mission – to build green belts around towns and villages that would empower and be managed by women – established a turning point for women’s rights in Kenya. According to public records, her husband divorced her two years after she launched the Green Belt Movement, complaining that she was “too educated” and “too strong-minded for a woman”, and that he was “unable to control her”.

She played an active part in the struggle for democracy in Kenya and challenged the deforestation that threatened the agricultural population’s means of subsistence. She fought against the authoritarian rule of Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi and protested building projects in Nairobi’s parks, something that resulted in her being arrested many times.

In later life, Maathai became a prominent figure in Kenyan politics. She was elected to the Kenyan parliament with an overwhelming 98% of the vote in 2002, and subsequently became Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife of Kenya.

Women involved in Wangarĩ Maathai’s Green Belt Movement in Kenya

Over the years, Maathai’s Green Belt Movement spread to other African countries and contributed to the planting of over 30 million trees, which improved access to water and fuel and helped curb erosion. In 2004, she was appointed a Nobel Laureate for Sustainable Development, Democracy and Peace – the first African woman ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee described her as someone who “thinks globally and acts locally”, aptly articulating why she was a trailblazer.

Maathai died in September 2011, and today she is internationally recognised for her resolute and unflinching dedication to democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She left an enduring legacy in Africa which shaped how ecology on the continent is perceived today, and she mobilised African women with a view to working towards sustainable development. She is one of Africa’s most important ecologists, and a role model and inspiration for millions of women and young girls.

As a political and women’s rights activist myself, I am inspired by the selflessness of Maathai’s journey: how she triumphed against the odds, and how her activism served a purpose that she herself defined. Before she came along, the idea of stopping deforestation was new – but she was able to inspire communities and then entire countries to adopt her initiative to plant trees.

She bore the scars of the injuries she sustained for her activism, and in winning the Nobel peace prize in 2004, she opened the gates for other African women to follow. I am in awe and very proud of Wangarĩ Muta Maathai.

Stylist’s Visible Women campaign is dedicated to raising awareness of women who’ve made a difference, celebrating their success, and empowering future generations to follow their lead. See more from Visible Women here.  

Images: Getty Images