by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II
Professor Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and environmentalist from Nairobi, Kenya, in Africa, died on September 25 this year at the age of 71. She was an amazing woman, and that’s why I want to write this column about her.
Professor Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 by paying poor rural women a few shillings to plant trees. This improved their livelihoods by creating firewood for cooking, making better access to clean water, and reversing the effects of deforestation. This movement has planted over 30 million trees in Africa. It has helped almost 900,000 women to establish tree nurseries.
Professor Maathai was also a patron of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) Billion Tree Campaign. Those who knew her as a mother, relative, coworker, colleague, role model, and heroine admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy, and better place for all of us. She worked for justice, democracy, and nonviolence and against ignorance, dishonesty, and environmental destruction. She often risked her life to campaign and coordinate women and young people for her Green Belt Movement.
She was loved and respected for her charm, good humor, optimism, conviction, and bright intellect. This she took from her native Kenya to the highest international debates on climate change, rights of women, poverty, and inequality. She was not afraid to speak truth to power! The head of the UNEP called her “a force of nature, strong in character, and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”
Wangari Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in the foothills of Mount Kenya in the town of Nyeri. As a star student, she won a scholarship to study biology in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1964, then a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh. Returning home, she earned a doctor of veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree!
In December 2002, Dr. Maathai was elected to Kenya’s parliament and later was appointed assistant minister for the environment and natural resources. In 2009, she was appointed as a United Nations Messenger of Peace for her commitment to human rights around the world. She received many awards, including France’s Légion d’Honneur in 2006, the Nelson Mandela Award in 2007, and Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun in 2009. She also received honorary doctorates from several universities.
Wangari Maathai has been an inspiration to young women and girls throughout Africa and the rest of the world. We are saddened by her death and will miss her warm spirit. I hope you will look up and read all you can about this wonderful person, and that you will strive to make the world a better place, just as she did.
Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (303) 499-3647.