Dr. Wangari Maathai P’94, P’96, Sc.D.’94, the first woman from Africa and the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has died at the age of 71 after a battle with cancer. The parent of two HWS graduates and the recipient of an HWS honorary degree and the Elizabeth Blackwell Award, Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, an organization devoted to conserving the environment and improving the quality of life for African women through leadership and entrepreneurial skills. Recognized by the international community as a passionate advocate for civil liberties and sustainability, she was known to the HWS community for her pride in the accomplishments of her three children, including Wanjiri Mathai ’94 and Muta Mathai ’96, and for her dedication to the Colleges.
“Wangari Maathai led a life devoted to service, advocacy and peace. She is an inspiration to us all,” said President Mark Gearan, announcing her passing to the HWS community.
Her most recent visit to campus was in 2008, when she was conferred the Elizabeth Blackwell Award. She spoke to a standing-room only audience at the Smith Opera House and planted a tree on campus. In her inspiring speech she described how she turned the planting of trees into the Green Belt Movement, and how she came to see the connections between human rights and conservation.
“It is virtually impossible to live on this planet in peace with each other if we do not learn to respect human rights, if we do not learn to respect the diversity that is within every community on the planet Earth,” Maathai said. “It is very important for us to manage our resources sustainably, share those resources more equitably and manage those resources with an understanding that we are only a passing cloud.”
Born in Nyeri, Kenya, the daughter of farmers in the highlands of Mount Kenya, she attended college in the United States and earned her Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi, where she also taught veterinary anatomy. The first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate, she became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976, another first for women in her region.
Through her visionary efforts with the Green Belt Movement, Maathai helped women plant more than 40 million trees across Africa, significantly improving the environment by curtailing the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification. Today, 6,000 village-based tree nurseries – run entirely by women – have been established in Kenya and the Green Belt Movement has spread to more than 30 countries.
In the course of her work as an activist, Maathai was tear-gassed, beaten, imprisoned and almost died. During the regime of President Arap Moi, she was violently attacked for demanding multi-party elections and an end to political corruption and tribal politics. In 1989, Maathai almost single-handedly saved Nairobi’s Uhuru Park by stopping the construction of the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust business complex.
In 1998, Maathai joined the campaign of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition. As co-chair of the Jubilee 2000 Africa Campaign, she played a leading role in seeking the cancellation of the overwhelming and unpayable debts of poor countries in Africa. She also campaigned tirelessly against land-grabbing and the theft of public forests.
Recently, Maathai co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five fellow peace laureates to advocate for justice, equality, and peace worldwide. She continued to play a role in global efforts to address climate change, serving as presiding officer of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council; co-chair of the Congo Basin Forest Fund; and a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust.
In 2010, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she established the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies, which brings together academic research with the Green Belt Movement’s grass-roots approach.
Maathai was internationally recognized for her persistent struggle for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation. She addressed the United Nations on several occasions, and she spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly. She served on the U.N. Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.
She received awards from many organizations and institutions throughout the world, including the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006); and honorary doctorates from Yale University, Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others. She has also been honored by international governments, including the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003).
Maathai is listed in the United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Hall of Fame and was named one of the 100 Heroines of the World. In June 1997, Maathai was elected by Earth Times as one of 100 people in the world who have made a difference in the environmental arena. In 2005, Maathai was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world and by Forbes magazine as one of the 100 most powerful women in the world.