Imagine you’re surrounded by lush, green, rolling hills. A gentle rain is falling, but the clouds aren’t just overhead, they seem to gently kiss your cheeks. Clouds blanket the far-off, jagged peak of Mount Kenya, or Kirinyaga, the bright place, the second-highest mountain in Africa. The dirt under your feet is a rich red-brown, and the trees in the forest beckon you to explore.
Early Days of Wangari Maathai
This is the world Wangari Maathai knew as a child. Born in the rainy season in the highlands of Kenya to a farming family, she spent a lot of time outdoors. She learned to observe the natural world: the rains, the rocks, the plants, and animals. She grew her own garden, diligently tending her crops. She fetched water from a spring where it bubbled up out of the ground and found hideaways behind forest plants. She learned how the rain fed her family’s crops, which fed her family and provided them with income when they sold the excess. She learned how that rain flowed down to rivers, providing clean drinking water for people and animals.
She learned to respect nature because it could be dangerous. Animals hid in the forest – leopards and elephants. She learned to care for it because it could also be fragile. Human beings could easily throw things out of balance by taking more than they needed from them, or not protecting what they gave them.
When she was eight, Wangari left her little farming village. Her mother took her and her older brothers to the nearby town of Nyeri so her brothers could go to school. In the 1940s, girls in Kenya rarely went to school. Wangari went along so that she could help her mother around the house with cooking and cleaning. But within weeks of their arrival, it became clear that this plan would never work. Wangari asked her older brothers about what they were learning each day when they got home from school. Soon, one of the brothers asked their mother why she couldn’t just go to school too. Her mother decided this wasn’t a bad idea, and soon, Wangari was going off to school each day too.
Wangari loved school and did well. She especially loved learning about the living world, the plants, and the animals that had been her constant companions when she lived in her small farming village. She graduated high school in 1959 but didn’t want to stop. As unusual as it was for a girl to finish high school in Kenya at that time, it was almost unheard of for one to go on to college. But Wangari heard about a program that sent Kenyan students to the United States for college. She applied and got a scholarship! Wangari was off to study at Mount Saint Scholastica College in Kansas.
Educational Adventures of Wangari Maathai
The 1960s were a time of big social changes in the United States. Women and African Americans were fighting for rights that they had been denied for a long time. They wanted equal opportunities to work and go to school, and they wanted unfair laws to be struck down. It was an exciting time, and Wangari embraced the ideals of equality and freedom. She went on to get a Master’s degree in biology at the University of Pittsburgh before returning to Kenya.
While she was gone, Kenya had gone through some big changes of its own. The country had been controlled by the British empire since the 1920s, but in 1963, it gained its independence. When Wangari returned, she came back to a country that was finally run by its own people. Wangari was excited to be a part of her country’s history. She hoped she could help it become a place where all people have equal rights and opportunities.
But, Wangari still wasn’t done learning. She began studying to become a veterinary doctor at the University of Nairobi. She became the first woman in East Africa to earn such an advanced degree! She began working as a professor at the university, teaching others about veterinary medicine.
Working Towards Democracy
Even though she was busy working at her job and starting a family by this time, Wangari kept thinking about how she could help make her country reach the ideals of democracy and equality. She took time to notice the problems facing the people of Kenya. One thing she noticed was that the lush, green hillsides she had explored as a child, the forests that had first taught her about the natural world, had changed. So many trees had been cut down that the land looked bare. Under British rule, people had cut down huge swaths of forest to make way for crops that could be sold for lots of money overseas, like coffee and tea. For someone who loved nature, like Wangari, this was a sad thing, but she knew it wasn’t just a problem for the trees. This deforestation was a problem for people too.
Trees help the land in many ways. They provide shade on hot days and grow fruit that people and animals eat. With their deep, spreading roots, they keep the soil on mountainsides from washing away in the rain. With so many trees gone, the rainy season no longer meant good crops and drinking water. Instead, the rain washed all the best soil down the hillsides, and into the rivers below. This made it harder to grow crops, so farmers couldn’t earn enough money to support themselves. It also made the rivers dirty, so the water wasn’t good to drink. With fewer trees, people had to walk farther to find firewood, which made it harder to cook meals.
These problems especially affected women, because they were the ones who went to fetch water and firewood. They had to walk further and further to find clean water and large trees.
Wangari wanted to help return her country to the beautiful, green landscape she’d known as a child, and, at the same time, fix the problems that deforestation had caused. If she could help people plant trees, they would also be able to grow more crops, so they could earn enough money to live off of. They would be able to find clean water and firewood nearby.
Wangari worked with a women’s group to pay women in rural areas of the country to plant trees. This helped with both deforestation and poverty since these women now earned a little bit of money to help their families. She taught women all over Kenya how to plant trees in nurseries, then transplant them into wild areas. At the same time, she taught them about how trees helped keep the land and their communities healthy. She called this project the Green Belt Movement because they planted trees in rows that would look like long, green belts across the land.
At first, the Kenyan government didn’t like Wangari’s movement. Didn’t like that a woman was taking charge, didn’t like that people planting trees weren’t professional foresters, and didn’t like that she helped poor people take control of their lives. Many in the government thought it would be better to make money for themselves by selling the deforested land to people who wanted to build on it. Wangari was attacked, beaten, and arrested. But she never gave up. The Green Belt Movement planted millions of trees in Kenya. Hillsides became green again. Trees helped hold soil in place so it didn’t wash away into the rivers, making them mucky and brown.
Wangari was even elected to Kenya’s parliament in 1997. She got 98% of the vote, which is very unusual for an election! Later, she was made minister of the environment. She helped make policies that would ensure long-lasting change and protection for the environment. Wangari felt that protecting the environment was a critical part of keeping people healthy and provided for. She had seen how the trees planted by the Green Belt Movement helped people out of poverty, cleaned up rivers, and made the soil healthy again.
Over time, Wangari’s movement started to mean more than just trees. People started to see that it was about helping people who were suffering, and when you do that, you create a more peaceful society. When people have what they need, they can help others too. They also saw that the small act of tree-planting, when many people did it, had a huge impact. This is how democracy works too: when enough people vote or speak out, small acts can amount to big changes. Kenya was working towards becoming a democracy during this time, so this was an important idea to spread. The trees planted by the Green Belt Movement became symbols, reminding people of how they could overcome their differences, make better decisions together as a country, and live in peace.
Nobel Peace Prize
In 2004, Wangari received a huge honor. She won the Nobel Prize for Peace. The Nobel Peace Prize recognizes someone who has done big things to support peace between countries or help people who were suffering. With her trees, Wangari had helped end suffering for people in Kenya and create a healthy environment where they could live peacefully for years to come. She did this even while she faced serious opposition from her own government. She worked not only to improve the natural environment but to guide her country towards democracy so that everyone could have a voice in how things were run.
Wangari became ill and passed away in 2011, but the movement she started continues. They still plant trees in Kenya, but also partner with other groups around the world to plant trees and tackle other problems like climate change and inequality. Even though the world faces a lot of big problems, it’s important to remember that even small acts can lead to big change, if enough people do them. There are so many things you can do to help, too! Plant a tree, donate food to a food pantry, or just say a kind thing to someone. If you do it, maybe someone else will too. All these little acts add up, bringing us closer, as Wangari put it, to “a time when we have shed our fear and give hope to each other.”
Crayton, Lisa A (2020). Wangari Maathai: Get to Know the Woman Who Planted Trees to Bring Change. Capstone, North Mankato, MN
Maathai, Wangari (2006) Unbowed. Random House, New York.
Swanson, Jennifer (2018) Environmental Activist Wangari Maathai. Lerner Publishing, Minneapolis.