‘Mary Jo’ (Wangari Muta Maathai) – WOMAN of ACTION™

A Celebration of Women™ …

has been inspired to Celebrate the Life of one Woman in our World that lived beyond her call of duty. Tributes have been paid to the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai who has died of cancer at the age of 71. As the first African Woman to receive the honour, Wangari Maathai not only championed preservation of the environment but she also promoted democracy, Women’s Rights and the Rights of the Poor.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga called her “the pillar of the nation”.





(Photo credit: Mainichi Corporation)

Wangari Muta

On 1 April 1940, Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya, then part of the British Empire. Her family were Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, and had lived in the area for several generations. Around 1943, Maathai’s family relocated to a white-owned farm in the Rift Valley, near the town of Nakuru, where her father had found work. Late in 1947, she returned to Ihithe with her mother, as two of her brothers were attending primary school in the village, and there was no schooling available on the farm where her father worked. Her father remained at the farm. Shortly afterward, at the age of eight, she joined her brothers at Ihithe Primary School.

At the age of eleven, Maathai moved to St. Cecilia’s Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri. Maathai studied at St. Cecilia’s for four years. During this time, she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism, taking the Christian name Mary Josephine. She also was involved with the Christian society known as the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted “to serve God by serving fellow human beings.” Studying at St. Cecilia’s, Maathai was sheltered from the ongoing Mau Mau Uprising, which forced her mother to move from their homestead to an emergency village in Ihithe. When she completed her studies there in 1956 she was rated first in her class, and was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School, Limuru in Limuru.

After graduating from Loreto-Limuru in 1959, she planned to attend the University of East Africa in Kampala, Uganda. However, the end of the colonial period of East Africa was nearing, and Kenyan politicians, such as Tom Mboya, were proposing ways to make education in Western nations available to promising students. John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of about three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities in September 1960.

She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh; as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya. Maathai received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas. At Mount St. Scholastica, she majored in biology, with minors in chemistry and German. After receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1964, she was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh to study for a master’s degree in biology.


Her graduate studies there were funded by the Africa-America Institute, and during her time in Pittsburgh, she first experienced environmental restoration, as local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution. In January 1966, Maathai was awarded her Master of Science in Biological Sciences, and was appointed to a position as research assistant to a professor of zoology at University College of Nairobi.

Upon her return to Kenya, Maathai dropped her Christian name, preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta. When she arrived at the university to start her new job, she was informed that it had been given to someone else. Maathai believed this was because of ‘gender and tribal bias’. After a job search lasting two months, Professor Reinhold Hofmann, from the University of Giessen in Germany, offered her a job as a research assistant in the microanatomy section of the newly established Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi.


In April 1966, she met Mwangi Mathai, another Kenyan who had studied in America, who would later become her husband. She also rented a small shop in the city, and established a general store, at which her sisters worked. In 1967, at the urging of Professor Hofmann, she traveled to the University of Giessen in Germany in pursuit of a doctorate. She studied both at Giessen and the University of Munich.

UNIVERSITY OF NAIROBI – The Fountain of Knowledge at the University of Nairobi. Photo/FILE

In the spring of 1969, she returned to Nairobi to continue her studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer. In May, she and Mwangi Mathai were married. Later that year, she became pregnant with her first child, and her husband campaigned for a seat in Parliament, narrowly losing. During the course of the election, Tom Mboya, who had been instrumental in founding the program which sent her overseas, was assassinated. This led to President Kenyatta effectually ending multi-party democracy in Kenya. Shortly afterward, her first son, Waweru, was born.


In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a Ph.D., when she was granted a Doctorate of Anatomy from the University College of Nairobi, which became the University of Nairobi the following year. She completed her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines. Her daughter, Wanjira, was born in December 1971. She continued to teach at the university, becoming a senior lecturer in Anatomy in 1974, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman appointed to any of these positions in Nairobi. During this time, she campaigned for ‘equal benefits for the women’ working on the staff of the university, going so far as to attempt to turn the academic staff association of the university into a union, in order to negotiate for benefits. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met.

In addition to her work at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became involved in a number of civic organizations in the early 1970s. She was a member of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, becoming its director in 1973. She was a member of the Kenya Association of University Women. Following the establishment of the Environment Liaison Centre in 1974, Maathai was asked to be a member of the local board, eventually becoming the chair of the board. The Environment Liaison Centre worked to promote the participation of non-governmental organizations in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters was established in Nairobi following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Maathai also joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work at these various volunteer associations, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya’s problems was environmental degradation.

In 1974, Maathai’s family expanded to include her third child, Muta. Her husband again campaigned for a seat in Parliament, hoping to represent the Lang’ata constituency, and won. During the course of his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. These promises led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed, and led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a business that involved the planting trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery, collocated with a government tree nursery in Karura Forest. Envirocare ran into multiple problems, primarily dealing with funding. The project failed, however, through conversations concerning Envirocare and her work at the Environment Liaison Centre, UNEP made it possible to send Maathai to the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I, in June 1976.

In 1977, Maathai spoke to the NCWK concerning her attendance at Habitat I. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported. On 5 June 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji park on the outskirts of the city where they planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first “Green Belt” which was first known as the “Save the Land Harambee” and then became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.

In 1977 her husband, Mwangi Mathai, left her. After a lengthy separation, in 1979 he sued for divorce, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. He publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament,[29] causing his high blood pressure, and being cruel. The judge in the divorce case agreed with the husband. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt. The interview angered the judge, and she was charged with contempt of court, found guilty, and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Maathai drop his surname. In defiance, she chose to add an extra “a” instead.

The divorce had been costly, and with lawyers’ fees and the loss of her husband’s income, Maathai found it difficult to provide for herself and her children on her university wages alone. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. As this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia, she was unable to bring her children with her. Maathai chose to send them to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, they lived with their father until 1985.

The Story of Two Social Movements: Southeast and Southwest

In 1979, shortly after the divorce, Maathai ran for the position of chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). The NCWK was an umbrella organization consisting of many different women’s organizations in the country. The new President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, was attempting to limit the amount of influence those of the Kikuyu ethnicity held in the country, including in volunteer civic organizations such as the NCWK. She lost this election by three votes, but was overwhelmingly chosen to be the vice-chairman of the organization. The following year, Maathai again ran for chairman of the NCWK.

Again she was opposed, she believes, by the government. When it became apparent that Maathai was going to win the election, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a member organization which represented a majority of Kenya’s rural women and whose leader was close to President arap Moi, withdrew from the NCWK. Maathai was then elected chairman of the NCWK unopposed.

However, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake came to receive a majority of the financial support for women’s programs in the country, and NCWK was left virtually bankrupt. Future funding was much more difficult to come by, but the NCWK survived by increasing its focus on the environment and making their presence and work known. Maathai continued to be elected to serve as chairman of the organization every year until she retired from the position in 1987.

In 1982, the Parliamentary seat representing her home region of Nyeri was open, and Maathai decided to campaign for the seat. As required by law, she resigned her position with the University of Nairobi to campaign for office. The courts decided that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not reregistered to vote in the last presidential election in 1979. Maathai believed this to be false and illegal and brought the matter to court. The court was to meet at nine in the morning, and if she received a favorable ruling, was required to present her candidacy papers in Nyeri by three in the afternoon that same day. The judge disqualified her from running on a technicality. When she requested her job back, she was denied. She believes this was because President Daniel arap Moi, who she deemed to be against her, was also the Chancellor of the University of Nairobi. As she lived in university housing and was no longer a member of staff, she was evicted from her home.

In 1986, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award.


Green Belt Movement

Maathai moved into a small home she had purchased years before, and focused on the NCWK while she searched for employment. In the course of her work through the NCWK, she was approached by Wilhelm Elsrud, executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society. He wished to partner with the Green Belt Movement and offered her the position of coordinator. Employed again, Maathai poured her efforts into the Green Belt Movement. Along with the partnership for the Norwegian Forestry Society, the movement had also received “seed money” from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed for the expansion of the movement, for hiring additional employees to oversee the operations, and for continuing to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings throughout the country. It also allowed her to refine the operations of the movement, paying a small stipend to the women’s husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of seedlings planted.


In 1985, the UN held the third global women’s conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Maathai arranged seminars and presentations to describe the work the Green Belt Movement was doing in Kenya. She escorted delegates to see nurseries and plant trees. She met Peggy Snyder, the head of UNIFEM, and Helvi Sipilä, the first woman appointed a UN assistant secretary general. The conference helped to expand funding for the Green Belt Movement and led to the movement’s establishing itself outside of Kenya.

In 1986, with funding from UNEP, the movement expanded throughout Africa and led to the foundation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Forty-five representatives from fifteen African countries traveled to Kenya over the next three years to learn how to set up similar programs in their own countries to combat desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger. The attention the movement received in the media led to Maathai’s being honored with numerous awards. The government of Kenya, however, demanded that the Green Belt Movement separate from the NCWK, believing the latter should focus solely on women’s issues, not the environment. Therefore, in 1987, Maathai stepped down as chairman of the NCWK and focused her attention on the newly separate nongovernmental organization.

In 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005.


Government intervention

In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party democracy was against many of the stances the movement taught pertaining to rights and democracy. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people to meet without first obtaining a government license. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government, however, was not interested in reform and carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power.

In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park. The complex was intended to house the headquarters of KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading center, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for two thousand cars. The plan also included a large statue of President arap Moi.

She wrote many letters in protest: the Kenya Times, the Office of the President, the Nairobi city commission, the provincial commissioner, the minister for environment and natural resources, the executive directors of UNEP and the Environment Liaison Centre International, the executive director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the ministry of public works, and the permanent secretary in the department of international security and administration all received letters.

She also wrote to Sir John Johnson, the British high commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene with Robert Maxwell, a major shareholder in the project, equating the construction of a tower in Uhuru Park to such construction in Hyde Park or Central Park and maintaining that it could not be tolerated.

Uhuru Gardens Memorial Park is located along Langata road, a 15 minutes drive from the city center.Uhuru Gardens is Kenya’s largest memorial park. The park offers the perfect tranquil setting for your picnic and family outing. Entrance to the park is free except car park charge. The grounds can also be hired and have been popular for concerts, weddings and launches.

When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there. ” Wangari Muta Maathai – Unbowed pg 192.

The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, instead responding through the media that Maathai was “a crazy woman“, denying the project in Uhuru Park would take more than a small portion of public park land, and proclaiming the project as a “fine and magnificent work of architecture” opposed by only the “ignorant few.”

On 8 November 1989, Parliament expressed outrage at Maathai’s actions, complaining of her letters to foreign organizations and calling the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members “a bunch of divorcees“. They suggested that if Maathai was so comfortable writing to Europeans, perhaps she should go live in Europe.[39]

In 1989, the Kenyan Parliament tried to outlaw the Green Belt movement, after Maathai publicly voiced her opposition to the construction of a private 60-story building in a Nairobi park. (Photo: Ingrid Lobet)

Despite Maathai’s protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on 15 November 1989. Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on 11 December. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President arap Moi said those who opposed the project had “insects in their heads.”

On 12 December, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home. The government then audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. Despite all this, her protests, the government’s response, and the media coverage it garnered led foreign investors to cancel the project in January 1990.

On 28 February 1992, while released on bail, Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike in a corner of Uruhu Park, which they labeled Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners. After four days of the hunger strike, on March 3, 1992, the police forcibly removed the protestors. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalized. President Daniel arap Moi called her “a mad woman” who is “a threat to the order and security of the country“.

The attack drew international criticism. The US State Department said it was “deeply concerned” by the violence and by the forcible removal of the hunger strikers. When the political prisoners were not released, the protestors, mostly mothers of those in prison, moved their protest to All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, across from Uhuru Park. The protest there continued, with Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.

During this time, Maathai was being recognized with various awards internationally, but the government of Kenya did not appreciate her work. In 1991 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership in London. CNN aired a three-minute segment concerning the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment had been edited out. In June 1992, during the lengthy protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The government of Kenya accused Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. In spite of this, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the summit.


“Tonight we honor individuals who recognize that the environment needs to be managed through sustainable means,” Maathai said. “The only way we can do that is if we govern ourselves responsibly.”

1984: Right Livelihood Award (a.k.a. “Alternative Nobel Prize“)
1986: Better World Society Award
1987: Global 500 Roll of Honour
1991: Goldman Environmental Prize
1991: The Hunger Project’s Africa Prize for Leadership
1993: Edinburgh Medal (for “Outstanding contribution to Humanity through Science”)
1993: Jane Addams Leadership Award
1993: Benedictine College Offeramus Medal
1994: The Golden Ark Award
2001: The Juliet Hollister Award
2003: Global Environment Award, World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations
2004: Conservation Scientist Award from Columbia University
2004: J. Sterling Morton Award
2004: Petra Kelly Prize
2004: Sophie Prize
2004: Nobel Peace Prize
2006: Légion d’honneur
2007: World Citizenship Award
2007: Indira Gandhi Prize
2007: Cross of the Order of St. Benedict
2008: The Elizabeth Blackwell Award from Hobart and William Smith Colleges
2009: NAACP Image Award – Chairman’s Award (with Al Gore)
2009: Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun of Japan
2011: The Nichols-Chancellor’s Medal awarded by Vanderbilt University

MAATHAI dies at hospital September , 2011.

Maathai leaves behind three children Waweru, Wanjira, Muta and a granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

Tribute from UN Women

“It is with deep sorrow and sadness that all of us at UN Women grieve the loss of Wangari Muta Maathai, an environmentalist, politician, professor and human rights activist.

We join people in Africa and around the world in mourning her death, and celebrating her life, as a remarkable leader who was the first African women to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Professor Maathai took a courageous stand, enduring harassment and brutality, to protect the environment and advance the rights of women, combating desertification, water shortages and rural hunger.

An extraordinary leader and founder of the Green Belt movement in Kenya, she galvanised an environmental movement that planted more than 30 million trees across Africa, empowered thousands of women, and passionately encouraged a new way of thinking and acting that combined democracy and sustainable development.

A fearless leader, she went where no one else dared to go and challenged authorities that few dared to challenge. Refusing to be cowed, she remained adamant about the full participation of women in civic and public life and leaves behind a legacy that will remain with us forever. Her innovative ideas around job creation through environmental restoration are today found in the global development agenda of green jobs and a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication.

UN Women draws inspiration from Dr. Maathai’s work, especially as we prepare for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development that will be held in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012. As we grieve her loss, our prayers and thoughts are with her family and the many women and men whose lives she touched. May her soul rest in peace as her vision guides us forward.”

A Celebration of Women™

sends our blessings to the family of this powerhouse

and hopes that the Spirit of Maathai will live on in all the Women of our World.

a Life Worth Celebration !!!

Brava Mary Jo!

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