“Respect for right conduct is felt by everybody.”
- Jane Austen (1775-1817)
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in Nyeri, Kenya in 1940. In 2004, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Her roots were in a society where only men went to school. Inspired by her brother, Maathai beseeched her parents to allow her to attend with him. Her parents scraped together enough to begin her journey. Her education started at 8 years old. Maathai excelled. Her aptitude for studies and intelligence resulted in scholarships to attend college.
She was the first woman to receive a doctorate degree in Central and East Africa. Wangari Maathai obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964). She subsequently earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966). She pursued doctoral studies in Germany and the University of Nairobi, obtaining a Ph.D. (1971) from the University of Nairobi where she also taught veterinary anatomy.
After Maathai returned to Kenya she witnessed the destruction that coffee plantations had created in her homeland. Her beloved trees were gone. The water had become tainted because there were not any tree roots to hold back the dirt. Villages were filled with waste. People were living in the worst of circumstances. Devastated by what she saw, she launched the Green Belt Movement to reforest her country while assisting the plight of women. She sought to end the destruction of Kenya’s forests and lands caused by development and remedy the negative impact that this development had on the country’s environment. She rallied the support of many women to plant trees. “Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted,” Maathai explained to People magazine. “So we decided to solve both problems together.”
Since she was an outspoken critic of dictator Daniel arap Moi, she was sentenced to prison and beaten many times. She challenged the government on its land development plans. Even though she was imprisoned numerous times, the movement expanded and is responsible for the planting of more than 30 million trees in Kenya and providing roughly 30,000 women with new skills and opportunities. While she was imprisoned, Maathai kept her passion, inspiring women there to reforest the land when they were released which helped to expand the movement.
Maathai and her organization staged a protest in 1989 because of a plan to construct a skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. Her campaign drew international attention, and the project was eventually dropped. The place in the park where she demonstrated became known as “Freedom Corner.”
When she called for the release of political prisoners the following year at “Freedom Corner”, Maathai was beaten and badly injured at another protest. Wangari Muta Maathai’s respect for land and peoples earned respect for her internationally. Her “right conduct” was felt by a multitude.
Susan Coffman is a member of Lee’s Summit CARES and a Lee’s Summit resident.