At a time when it was not commonplace among women in East and Central Africa to bag doctorate degrees, Wangari Maathai obtained one in Germany and the University of Nairobi where she was also a lecturer in Veterinary Anatomy making her the first woman to earn one in the entire region.
But Maathai had not always had the providence of positive firsts. Born in the village of Ihithe in the colony of Kenya and moving at the age of two with her family to a White owned farm in the Rift Valley, Maathai started primary school at eight and upon her return to her place of birth due to an absence of schools on the farm.
She however made up for this belated start graduating from high school thirteen years later and as one of the 300 best students nominated to study in the United States. What this selection did for Maathai was propel her to a pinnacle she had already been predestined for, she would in the States secure a spot at the Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas graduating with a BSc in Biology and successively an MSc in the exact discipline from the University of Pittsburgh.
Following the completion of her Postgraduate studies, Maathai returned to her home country where she resumed under Professor Hofmann of Veterinary Anatomy at the University of Nairobi after losing her initial offer as a research assistant to a baseless gender favoritism. She nonetheless handled her position with a much needed enthusiasm, coalescing her experience from being overseas with the indigenous stance of having grown up in the region.
This knowledge trade didn’t last for so long however for in 1967, yielding to persuasion from the professor, Maathai once again left home in pursuit of a Doctorate degree at the University of Munich, Germany. Two years later, she returned to Nairobi as an assistant lecturer and to continue her doctorate and in 1971, she clinched the venerated title of “Doctor” becoming the first woman in the region to ever do so.
Perhaps it was this feat that catalyzed her transition into activism and birthed her relentless fight against the subjugation and oppression of women, but shortly upon the completion of her Doctorate and goaded by the progressive turn her career was taking, Maathai began to speak against gender inequality.
She worked in various capacities across a diverse network of women/human rights organizations including Kenya Association of University Women, Local Environment Liaison Centre, National Council of Women of Kenya and Kenya Red Cross Society displaying a hunger for transformation and adjustment clearly expressed in a popular saying by Maathai herself, “Human rights are not things that are put on the table for people to enjoy. These are things you fight for and then you protect.”
During this time, she met and married Mwangi Maathai, a man who like herself was driven by a knack to enact social change and who a few years after their marriage campaigned for a seat in the parliament with a promise to tackle the augmenting unemployment rate in the region.
Mwangi did win the seat on his second trial in 1974, and Maathai who had been exposed to the power of environmental restoration from her American days, who believed it to be a reliable way of promoting economic development and prompted by her husband’s campaign creed to create jobs founded Envirocare Ltd.
The organization although creating employment for hundreds of Kenyans had a clear cut mission, to encourage people to plant trees and save the environment. A delightful mission statement however could not keep it going and shortly after it’s inception, Envirocare Ltd closed down to financial constraints.
The flopped company in somewhat of a ripple effect became the basis on which Maathai years later founded the Greenbelt movement, a non-government organization designed to contend desertification, deforestation, water crises and rural hunger around Africa.
At this time, Maathai’s activism also intensified, she stretched to politics, kick-starting a hunger strike to free political prisoners, holding the government accountable for statutory modifications, emboldening free speech and eventually running for president.
In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In her acceptance speech, Maathai said, “As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership.”