The Rittenhouse Review

A Philadelphia Journal of Politics, Finance, Ethics, and Culture

Friday, October 08, 2004  

Wangari Maathai!

Just so you know, it's 4:54 a.m. in Philadelphia, and the Norwegian Nobel Committee moments ago named Wangari Maathai the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize.

According to

Wangari Maathai founded the Green Belt movement in Kenya in 1977, which has planted more than 10 million trees to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking fires. A 1989 United Nations report noted that only 9 trees were being replanted in Africa for every 100 that were cut down, causing serious problems with deforestation: soil runoff, water pollution, difficulty finding firewood, lack of animal nutrition, etc. The program has been carried out primarily by women in the villages of Kenya, who through protecting their environment and through the paid employment for planting the trees are able to better care for their children and their children's future.

Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Wangari Maathai was able to pursue higher education, a rarity for girls in rural areas of Kenya. She earned her biology degree from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

When she returned to Kenya, Wangari Maathai worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi, and eventually, despite the skepticism and even opposition of the male students and faculty, was able to earn a Ph.D. there. She worked her way up through the academic ranks, becoming head of the veterinary medicine faculty, a first for a woman at any department at that university.

Wangari Maathai's husband ran for Parliament in the 1970s, and Wangari Maathai became involved in organizing work for poor people and eventually this became a national grass-roots organization, providing work and improving the environment at the same time. The project has made significant headway against Kenya's deforestation.

Wangari Maathai's husband divorced her in the 1980s, complaining that she was "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too had to control." (quote from Encyclopedia of World Biography, 1999, Gale Group.) They had three children.

Wangari Maathai continued her work with the Green Belt Movement, and working for environmental and women's causes. She also served as national chairperson for the National Council of Women of Kenya.

In 1997 Wangari Maathai ran for the presidency of Kenya, though the party withdrew her candidacy a few days before the election without letting her know; she was defeated for a seat in Parliament in the same election.

In 1998, Wangari Maathai gained worldwide attention when the Kenyan President backed development of a luxury housing project and building began by clearing hundreds of acres of Kenya forest. In 1991, she was arrested and imprisoned; an Amnesty International letter-writing campaign helped free her. In 1999 she suffered head injuries when attacked while planting trees in the Karura Public Forest in Nairobi, part of a protest against continuing deforestation. She was arrested numerous times by the government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

In January, 2002, Wangari Maathai accepted a position as Visiting Fellow at Yale University's Global Institute for Sustainable Forestry.

And in December, 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to Parliament, as Mwai Kibabi defeated Maathai's long-time political nemesis, Daniel arap Moi, for 24 years the President of Kenya. Kibabi named Maathai as Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January, 2003.

Well, there you have it. And I was wrong.

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