Iconic Women

Wangari Maathai, the first African Woman to Win a Nobel Peace Prize

By Aisha Kabiru Mohammed | Aug 9, 2023

Wangari Maathai was born on April 1st, 1940 in the Kenyan colony's central highlands, in the Ihithe, Nyeri District village. Her family has been in the area for centuries and is a part of the largest ethnic group in Kenya, Kikuyu.  Wangari's family moved to a White-owned farm in the Rift Valley, close to Nakuru, in 1943 because her father worked there. In the latter part of 1947, Wangari and her mother moved back to Ihithe since two of her brothers were enrolled in the village's primary school and there was no school on the farm where her father worked.

Wangari entered the boarding school St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri when she was 11 years old. Wangari spent four years as a student at St. Cecilia's. She turned to Catholicism at this time and improved her English. She participated in the Legion of Mary, an organization whose members sought "to serve God by serving fellow human beings."

She was protected from the continuing Mau Mau revolt while she was a student at St. Cecilia's, which compelled her mother to relocate their homestead to an emergency hamlet in Ihithe. When she finished her education there in 1956, she was ranked first in her class and was given admission to Loreto High School in Limuru, the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya.

Kenyan leaders like Tom Mboya were making suggestions as the end of East African colonialism drew near for making education in Western countries accessible to deserving pupils. The Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa was started after John F. Kennedy, who was a senator at the time, agreed to sponsor such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation. In September 1960, Wangari was chosen as one of about 300 Kenyans to study in the United States.

Her tuition at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas, was covered by a scholarship. She pursued a master's in biology at the University of Pittsburgh. The Africa-America Institute paid for her graduate studies there, and it was while she was living in Pittsburgh that she first encountered environmental restoration as the city's environmentalists fought to clean up its air. Her thesis was titled “Developmental and Cytological Study of the Pineal Body of Coturnix coturnix japonica”, which is a species of quail found in east Asia.

In 1975, she was a senior lecturer in anatomy and in 1976 she was the head of the department of veterinary anatomy, and in 1977 she was an associate professor. She was the first female to hold any of these posts in Nairobi. 

Mwangi Maathai, Wangari's spouse, and Wangari got divorced in 1977. Mwangi sought a divorce in 1979 after a protracted separation. According to reports, he thought Wangari was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he couldn't "control her." In addition to calling her "cruel" in court documents, he also accused her in public of having an extramarital affair with another member of parliament, which was considered to be the reason for his high blood pressure.

The judge decided in Mwangi's favour. Wangari campaigned for chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella grouping various women's organizations in the nation, in 1979, not long after her divorce. In response to the environmental worries voiced by rural Kenyan women, Wangari launched the Green Belt Movement. 

The 2004 Nobel Peace Prize was given to Wangari Wangari for her "contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace." Wangari was the first African woman to get the honorable distinction. She served as a World Future Council Honorary Councillor. Wangari was not just an activist but also a scholar who wrote numerous publications. She made substantial contributions to the fields of ecology, development, gender, and African cultures and religions.

On September 25, 2011, Wangari passed away as a result of ovarian cancer complications.

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