Wangari Maathai – Planter of Trees, Empowerer of Women, Defender of Democracy, Bringer of Peace

A growing seedling

Wangari was born in Nyeri in 1940, in what was then British Kenya. I know what you’re thinking, those Brits at it again!

Her parents were rural farmers, so she grew up on as much as with the land. The first part of her biography basically reads like a love letter to nature with lush trees, ferns, shrubs, rivers, wildlife all set to the background of Mount Kenya.

Wangari Maathai. Source:

As one of six children, and the oldest daughter, she was recruited as her mom’s right-hand girl as soon as she was old enough, helping with chores, taking care of her siblings, and of course cultivating the land.

While most of the population was used to living off the land and trading in goods, the Brits quickly established the cruel rule of hard cash. They introduced an income tax to be paid by all men, which naturally could only be paid in cash. So people previously farming their land had to leave it to find jobs that paid in cash to pay the stupid tax introduced by the British.

Now guess who the only people were that had any cash and were, therefore, the only ones to offer jobs paid in cash? Well, it wasn’t the Kenyans.

Wangari’s father had to go off and work on a settler’s farm as a mechanic and driver to earn himself some coins. Wangari joined him for a while but moved back to Nyeri when she was 7 to help out her mother and uncle.

Her brothers already went to school and one of them asked why Wangari couldn’t join them at school. Her mother, making a kickass decision considering the time and place, simply said “why not?” and so off to school she went.

One thing the British also brought to Kenya was missionaries, and missionaries built schools. And so it was that Wangari started going to a Presbyterian primary school during the day while continuing to help cultivate the land in the evening.

I’ll let you hear from the woman herself, so you really get the gist of her deep connection to the land:

“Nothing is more beautiful than cultivating the land at dusk. At that time of day in the central highlands the air and the soil are cool, the sun is going down, the sunlight is golden against the ridges and the green of trees, and there is usually a breeze. As you remove the weeds and press the earth around the crops you feel content, and wish the light would last longer so you could cultivate more. Earth and water, air and the waning fire of the sun combine to form the essential elements of life and reveal to me my kinship with the soil.”

…. Mic drop!


Now I wish I could tell you more about her early life and her love of nature but there is so much badassery coming up that we’ll just have to fast forward a little bit.

So at this point imagine a montage of Wangari going through different schools, boarding schools with nuns, studying hard, graduating first in her class, going to high school, all the while her country was engulfed in a guerilla war for independence from the British (now that’s a whole article in itself, so go look up the Mau Mau when you can).

By the time Wangari graduated high school, there were basically two “career options” for women in Kenya – you could become a teacher or a nurse. Yeaye! When asked which career she would choose, she said that’s easy, neither! 

So instead of becoming a nurse or a teacher, she went to university in the United States. As you do.

Coming to America

At the time, the United States were opening up their doors to people from the previous European colonies. I’m guessing in an attempt to gain some more cultural influence in the world and scoop up all the smart brains the Europeans had left behind.

As we’ve seen, Wangari definitely had brains on her, so in September 1960 she became one of 300 students that were flown to the US of A to attend university, all sponsored by the Kennedy Foundation (yes, that Kennedy).

Together with a friend from school, Wangari was assigned to attend Mount St. Scholastica in Atchison, northeastern Kansas.

Planes weren’t the same back then, so to get to the United States, Wangari and the others travelled through Benghazi, Luxembourg, Reykjavik, Newfoundland and finally to New York, which sounds like a fantastic trip to me!

I can only imagine the drastic changes in scenery and the culture shock that goes with it. But Wangari was loving every moment of it – the vastness of the Sahara, the winding streets of Luxembourg, frog legs in Newfoundland (although she thought it was chicken) and then the awesome and overwhelming clusterfuck that is New York, with its skyscrapers, escalators and… streets full of Black Americans.

This being 1960, the Civil Rights Act which put an end to segregation hadn’t been passed yet and Wangari had to learn the hard way that she wouldn’t be treated equally to other people in this new home of hers.

She says “an African has to go to America to understand slavery and its impact on black people.” 

Fortunately, things were a bit better in End of the World Atchison, Kansas, where people welcomed them with open arms.

She was marvelling at all the crazy freedoms American kids were enjoying, such as kissing, watching romantic scenes in movies, and dancing together (like men and women, together). It made her seriously question her upbringing. Why had she been told that these things were wrong? Obviously, there was nothing wrong about it. Things seemed to be also a bit more lax in the religious department, with mass being held in English and no food restrictions. So either God had changed his mind, or the whole thing needed to be questioned, another step towards the critical mind she became.

Wangari also fell in love with the Kansas countryside and the seasons it went through – the amazing colours of leaves in the fall, her first snow and the freezing cold that followed in the winter. She loved the winds in the trees and the beginning of spring which reminded her of “the excitement of seeing seeds germinating after the rains fell at home”. You need to be seriously in love with nature to call seeds germinating an exciting event!

Atchison, Kansas. Source:

While enjoying the marvels of nature, Wangari continued to work hard and study harder.

Despite having a shit ton of work, she made it on the dean’s list, studying biology as a major and chemistry and German as her minors. Kicking academic butt in her bachelor’s, she easily got accepted for a master’s degree in biology in Pittsburgh, complete with a full scholarship.

During her master’s she studied the pineal gland of Japanese quails (yeah, what?), and upon finishing it, she was recruited back to newly independent Kenya as a research assistant to the professor of zoology at the University College of Nairobi.

Dr. Badass

Wangari says that she came back to Kenya with “five and a half years of higher education, as well as the belief that I should work hard, help the poor, and watch out for the weak and vulnerable”. Seriously! I don’t know about you, but that’s not what I sounded like after uni.

So she showed up at her job and was told that it had already been given to someone else. Apparently, the confirmation she received didn’t have the right letterhead or something, and it was also handwritten and therefore clearly not official. Basically, she came all the way back to Kenya for nothing. Thanks a bunch, assholes!

She realised that the cancellation of her job had mostly to do with the fact that she was a woman and a Kikuyu. At that moment, she had the crushing realisation that “that the sky would not be my limit! Most likely, my gender and my ethnicity would be.”

Of course, she didn’t give up though. It took her several months, but she finally met a German professor who was looking exactly for the mad skills working with microscopes and tissues she’d acquired during her master’s. She immediately got recruited to the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University College of Nairobi. Incidentally, her German skills also came in handy for dealing with German textbooks and colleagues. Wunderbar!

Working hard as per usual, she eventually became part of the teaching and research team, which also allowed her to register for her PhD.

As part of her PhD studies, she got to spend 20 months in Giessen, Germany to deepen her knowledge. She also spent quite a bit of time in Munich where she enjoyed the English Garden with its green trees and lawns, and the beautiful Bavarian countryside with its lakes and mountains.  Love letters to nature, everywhere she goes!

Beautiful Bavaria. Source:

Back in Nairobi she got promoted to assistant lecturer and powered through her research, receiving her PhD in 1971 as the first Eastern African woman ever.

Staying at the university, she also continued the fight for gender equality, battling for women to enjoy the same benefits as their male colleagues, e.g. university housing. In order to have a stronger position to negotiate with the university, she started an association that she was planning to turn into a union to give the university some shit. But in the end, the university gave her what she wanted just so she’d stop pestering them. The woman definitely knew how to persist!

Planting trees to solve all the problems

Apart from her work at uni, she was involved in many organisations, such as the Kenya Red Cross, and the Kenya Organisation of University Women. All that involvement later led her to be chairwoman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organisation for many women’s organisations in Kenya. She ran for chairperson in 1979 but was opposed by the government who was trying to limit the influence of the Kikuyu, but she became vice-chairman that year and chairman the following year.

In 1982 she ran for a political role to represent her region in parliament. To do this she had to resign from her role at the university. In a last minute decision, she was denied to run for the political position on a technicality, again the government opposing her from gaining too much influence. She then asked for her job back and was denied and therefore kicked out of her university house. So no job, no political role, no place to live.

She moved into a small house she had bought previously and put all her focus on her work with the NCWK.

Through her work, Wangari noticed more and more worrying signs that the situation for people in the country was deteriorating – streams were running muddy, cows were getting skinny because there was little to no fodder for them, and the people were also looking more and more undernourished as their fields yielded less and less food. In short, the people and their livestock were threatened by environmental degradation.

With her biology superpowers, Wangari quickly saw that the root (haha, root, get it?) of all these problems was the large scale governmental deforestation which led to soil erosion. Tea and coffee plantations had replaced indigenous forests and weren’t able to hold on to the top soil during the rains as well as the previously diverse vegetation had been.

Additionally, farmers had turned to planting cash crops to sell them on the international markets. And because people weren’t growing much food to eat, they turned to processed foods to feed their families, like white bread, flour and rice – filling but not very nutritious. These foods were also easier to cook, which was important as there was less and less firewood available.

Wangari’s solution was as simple as it was brilliant: plant a shit ton of trees!

“The trees would provide a supply of wood that would enable women to cook nutritious foods. They would also have wood for fencing and fodder for cattle and goats. The trees would offer shade for humans and animals, protect watersheds and bind the soil, and, if they were fruit trees, provide food. They would also heal the land by bringing back birds and small animals and regenerate the vitality of the earth.”

BAM! And that’s how the Green Belt Movement came to life. 

So Wangari started setting up a program, teaching women all over the country how to grow seedlings, plant them and care of the growing trees. Normally, this was supposed to be the job of official foresters (men of course), and they naturally expressed their doubts about the capability of women to learn the fine science of foresting. Yeah right, because women who have been planting crops and fruits and whatnot all their lives will clearly be incapable of doing the same thing to trees.

Well turns out, as Wangari said, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.

The Green Belt Movement. Source:

So needless to say, the Green Belt Movement became a great success with more and more communities taking ownership of their own initiatives. The Green Belt Movement continued to spread throughout the country, and eventually even internationally. 

To date members of the Green Belt Movement have planted an incredible 50 million trees!

Getting involved in the education and empowerment of women and their communities can quickly get political. So it is no surprise that the Green Belt Movement soon started to advocate for more democracy. At the time, Kenya only had a single political party. So a few held all the power, with the voice of the opposition, minorities, or the poorer population simply not being heard. 

Naturally, the government wasn’t a big fan of Wangari tried to throw rocks in her way any which way they could. Just to give you one example, in order to stop the Green Belt Movement, the government reactivated some ancient colonial law that made it illegal for groups of more than 9 people to gather without a government license.

But Wangari wasn’t having any of it, and fought them right back each and every time, through any means necessary. Protests, the press, the courts, international organisations, what have you.  Being seen as a bit of shit-stirrer by the government, it is no surprise that she also got arrested on several occasions.

And because this woman just wouldn’t stop with the awesomeness, we’ll have to go through another quick journey of the other kickass things she did in her life, because otherwise, I’d have to write a book. Which Wangari already did. Much better than I ever could. You should really read it. But anyways, here goes…

Another Montage of Awesome

In 1989 she fought the construction of a giant 60 story building in Uhuru Park, the biggest green space in Nairobi. The plans for the “Kenya Times Complex” came complete with a shopping centre and parking lots, effectively destroying a large part of the greenery to make space for concrete. She wrote enquiries and open letters and confronted the government who very maturely responded by calling her a crazy woman. When they actually started building, she went to the courts, unfortunately without success. The government tried the best to shut up Wangari and shut down the Green Belt Movement, but she kept up the pressure and eventually foreign investors withdrew from the project leading to it to be shut down.

In 1992, a woman came to Wangari to tell her about her son who had been kept with others as political prisoners by the government without any real chargers. Nobody really knew what was happening to these men in prison, but we can take a wild guess that it wasn’t pretty. Even though she was only out on bail herself, Wangari immediately sprang into action and organised a hunger strike to get the prisoners released.

Freedom Corner Source:

Together with the mothers of the other prisoners they occupied a corner of Uhuru Park, later renamed as Freedom Corner, demanding for the prisoners to be released. After four days, the government had had enough and sent in the police to remove the women. The police didn’t go in lightly, women, a lot of them elderly, were injured and knocked unconscious. This caused a massive outcry around the globe, but still, the government wouldn’t release the prisoners. The mothers moved their protest into the sanctuary of a nearby church where they went on for almost a full year before the government finally released their sons.

In 1998, she got wind of the government’s plan to privatise large parts of Karura Forest, basically giving the right to the new owners to do with as they please. The potential loss of forest again brought out the fighter in Wangari. She immediately started publicly opposing the idea through open letters, speeches and seeking international support. She went to Karura Forest to plant a symbolic tree in protest and the group was violently attacked by armed guards. Many were injured, but again the more than shitty response of the government resulted in international outrage which in turn resulted in the government to bend down and ban the privatisation of public lands.

Wangari also played a big part in organising opposing political parties into the National Rainbow Coalition, so that together they would stand a bigger chance of winning against the ruling party. In 2002, they finally won and Wangari was appointed Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.

And in the end, the Nobel Peace Prize, because what else!

In recognition of her endless struggle to save nature, empower women, fight for democracy and freedom, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 as the first African woman and the first environmentalist.

Seriously, the woman never stopped, never gave in, never got discouraged. What a serious badass!

“If you don’t foresee the danger and see only the solution, then you can defy anyone and appear strong and fearless”  – Wangari Maathai

Source: / Radu Sigheti/Reuters

All quotes are from her most awesome biography “Wangari Maathai – Unbowed”, Penguin (2006). Highly recommend it!