Last Updated: December 8th, 2018

I visited Kenya for the first time in the summer of 2007. And what I encountered there—the culture, its breathtaking landscapes, its wondrous wildlife—forever altered the way I see the world. I tracked the nearly extinct cheetah, marvelled at the thousands of wildebeest making their annual migration across the Mara River, and interviewed local rangers eager to preserve and promote their way of life. I left Kenya feeling that I’d learned a great deal about this fascinating land.

Upon my return home, however, as I continued to read more about this beautiful country, I soon realized I’d missed a critical aspect of Kenyan history and culture. I hadn’t been properly introduced to the remarkable story of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmental and human rights activist—and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. I promptly went about the business of educating myself and discovered one of the world’s most inspirational women.

Wangari Maathai had a statuesque build, with broad shoulders and an even broader smile. She spoke with conviction in a deep and measured voice, and exuded a sense of personal power. She was a woman to be reckoned with: Despite imprisonment, charges of treason and public ridicule, she never wavered in her mission to restore and protect Kenya’s natural resources and to fight for human rights. When she shone too brightly or opposed the former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi’s draconian policies, she was lambasted as a “wayward” woman. As she noted in her aptly titled 2006 memoir, Unbowed, however, “When pressure is applied to me unfairly, I tend to dig in my heels and stand my ground—precisely the opposite of what those applying the pressure hope or expect.”

Wangari founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots program that uses tree planting as an entry point to inspire larger discussions of self-determination, equity and environmental conservation. The program began in Kenya and later spread to other African nations. Her dream was to see her native land green and thriving once again. Over the years, thousands of women who believe in Wangari’s vision have worked together to plant over 30 million trees.

Wangari’s mission proved to be more controversial than one might think. While she set out to lead a movement to heal the wounds of the earth, the people of Kenya embarked on the difficult path of healing their own oppressive history of colonization. In planting trees, Wangari had also nurtured the seeds of democracy and personal empowerment.

Wangari was born in 1940 in a traditional mud-walled house in Nyeri in what was then British Kenya. The land was abundant with plants, the soil was rich and drinking water was clean and plentiful. As was the custom, upon her birth, her Kikuyu community welcomed her with a special ritual: Her mother was fed bananas, sweet potatoes, lamb and the juice of blue-purple sugarcane—all foods from the local land. Through her first drop of mother’s milk, Wangari was also introduced to these tastes, thereby connecting her to the land and nature’s magic.

Every experience has a lesson. Every situation has a silver lining.

However, her community’s relationship to its land and customs was changing. For all the progress that British colonization was supposed to bring to Kenya, it often lowered the standard of living for its indigenous people. European settlers received title deeds, and some Kenyan tribes were relegated to living on designated reserves. British colonization had brought clear-cutting, logging and hunting, which destroyed the natural ecosystem that helped gather and retain rainwater. Streams soon dried up, causing a shortage of drinking water. Fewer crops were cultivated, making less food available. The world that Wangari knew as a child was vanishing.

During the 1950s, Kenyan nationalists—known as Mau Mau—launched a war against the British for independence and land reclamation. The British reaction was harsh: Nearly 1 million Africans were sent to detention camps, where 100,000 of them perished. Wangari’s own mother was forced into one of the government’s emergency villages for seven long years.

By the time Wangari graduated from high school, in 1959, however, the colonial era was coming to an end, and a whole new world was opening up. Black Kenyans were allowed to vote in elections for the first time. And because Wangari was a good student, she was offered a scholarship by the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation to study in the United States. At 20, Wangari boarded a plane for the first time and headed to Atchison, Kansas, where she studied biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College). She went on to earn a Master of Science degree at the University of Pittsburgh in 1966.

Wangari returned to newly independent Kenya inspired by America’s flourishing women’s movement. As she noted in Unbowed, “I had higher aspirations and did not want to be compared with men of lesser ability and capacity. I wanted to be me.” She earned a Ph.D. from the University of Nairobi in 1971, making her the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She eventually became a senior lecturer and chair of the veterinary anatomy department at the University of Nairobi. (She was the first woman in Kenya to hold both posts.) Soon after, she married Mwangi Mathai who had also studied in America, and together they had three children. She shocked many around her by continuing to work throughout.

In 1976, Wangari became a member of the National Council of Women of Kenya, an organization formed in 1964 that was dedicated to women’s political, economic and social empowerment. Through the council, she saw firsthand the dire predicament of both her country’s land and rural women. Trapped in poverty, these women had no clean drinking water, no crops for food and no firewood. Wangari knew that the environment was directly related to their poor quality of life. As she said in the 2008 documentary Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai, “What we complain about are symptoms, and we need to understand the causes.”

Wangari wrote in her memoir: “When what you remember disappears, you miss it and search for it.” She dreamed of seeing her native land restored and believed change could come directly from the community. In 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement, which proposed that women plant native seedlings to help restore the environment. For each tree planted, they were given 4 cents. Local communities, farms, schools and churches took ownership of the movement, and soon tree nurseries sprang up all across Kenya. The Green Belt Movement established more than 600 community-based networks.

But success ushered in new challenges for Wangari. She came home one day in July 1977 to find that her husband had left her. In her heart, she knew she’d loved and supported him. But now she faced personal tragedy and financial insecurity. Heartbroken in her empty house, she searched for a broom. As she recalled in her memoir: “Sweep!” an inner voice ordered her. She spent the night sweeping up what her husband had left behind. As she swept the last bit of dust, she realized, “Picking myself up by my strings was a way of making sure that no matter how desperate a situation seemed, I didn’t completely give up.” This ability to extract positive lessons from life’s challenges stayed with her throughout her life.

The courts and the press had a field day covering her divorce proceedings. As a successful woman, she threatened established notions of women’s roles in Kenyan society. She was labelled too ambitious and educated to have sustained a good marriage. She was even threatened with contempt of court (after calling her judge corrupt) and sent to jail for a time as an example to other women. But she resolved “to hold my head high, put my shoulders back, and suffer with dignity: I would give every woman and girl reasons to be proud and never regret being educated, successful and talented.”

Meanwhile, the Green Belt Movement grew. In 1986, its leaders launched the Pan African Green Belt Network to share its unique tree planting-based initiative with leaders of other African countries. As a result, this approach was successfully implemented in Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere. In Kenya, it progressed from a tree-planting program into one that also educated and fostered ideas about personal responsibility, human rights and gender relations. The movement also provided a forum for people to openly discuss the adverse effect of colonization and deforestation, many for the first time in their lives.

As the Green Belt Movement grew, so too did Wangari’s influence and fame. A civic group in Kenya named her Woman of the Year in 1983. Then, in 1989, Diana, Princess of Wales, presented her with WomenAid International’s prestigious Woman of the World Award. Other accolades came her way, including the coveted Goldman Environmental Prize, in 1991.

For the stream to grow into a river, it must meet other tributaries and join them as it heads for a lake or the sea.

At the same time, pressure to keep her in check persisted. Kenya’s President Moi, in office from 1978 to 2002, kept an iron grip on his country’s power structure and sought to limit her role in the National Council of Women in Kenya by installing his own candidate. When that failed, Moi separated the council from the Green Belt Movement to reduce its donor support.

In the fall of 1989, the government announced plans to build a $200 million skyscraper in Uhuru Park, adjacent to Nairobi’s central business district. Knowing that this massive structure would forever change the character of the park, Wangari wrote letters to politicians, nonprofit organizations, and newspapers opposing the development. President Moi retaliated by calling her group of activists a bunch of nagging divorcées, hoping to make an example of her.

Wangari received death threats. The Green Belt Movement was blacklisted. To Wangari, though, the struggle for Uhuru Park was a symbol of potential democracy, of ordinary citizens’ ability to reclaim power by speaking out. After much international press coverage, foreign investors and donor governments backed out of the project. The standoff energized Kenya’s people.

Under President Moi, Kenya had essentially become a one-party state. Opponents were often detained or imprisoned. Wangari and the Green Belt Movement joined others in pro-democracy activities and openly opposing Moi. To punish her, the police were ordered to arrest her. She was imprisoned on charges of spreading malicious rumours, sedition and treason—the 52-year-old arthritic Wangari was forced to spend sleepless nights in a cold, wet cell.

By the time of her hearing, Wangari had to be carried out of the courtroom to an ambulance. Outside the courtroom, she found an outpouring of support. Mothers in Action, a women’s rights group, raised a banner for her to see: “Wangari, Brave Daughter of Kenya, You Will Never Walk Alone Again.” In Washington, D.C., members of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee applied pressure to Moi’s regime, and charges against Wangari were eventually dropped.

In no time, Wangari was back in action, appealing to the government for the release of democratic activists. In 1992, she joined with mothers of political prisoners in Uhuru Park (later named Freedom Square) to stage a hunger strike. By the third day, their gathering had swelled to several hundred people. Many spoke out about their horrific experiences under the Moi regime.

On the fifth day of their protest, the police moved in. Batons were hurled at the protesters and gunshots filled the air. Wangari was knocked unconscious and taken to a hospital. But these mothers—including Wangari’s own—had staged a powerful act of African defiance.

In the days that followed, the mothers sought refuge in a cathedral. When Wangari was released from the hospital, she returned to the protest. Eventually, the nonviolent protest paid off. In 1993, all but one of the 52 “political prisoner sons” were released. Energized by the success, Wangari next helped create the movement for free and fair elections and coordinated seminars to teach Kenyans about the upcoming elections. In 2002, Moi was defeated in an election, and Wangari was elected to the Kenyan National Assembly with 98 percent of the vote. Thousands gathered in Uhuru Park to celebrate.

On October 8, 2004, Wangari learned she’d been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She was the first African woman and the first environmentalist to win the prize. Upon hearing the news, she celebrated the best way she knew how—by planting a seedling overlooking majestic Mount Kenya.

Wangari died of cancer in the fall of 2011 at the age of 71. Her legacy, like the millions of trees she and others planted, lives on as a symbol of hope and determination to us all.

Angella Nazarian is a bestselling author and speaker, as well as a regular contributor to Huffington Post, “Open Field Network,” and More.com. She has also written Life as a Visitor. She has a BS in Psychology, as well as a graduate degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.This is an excerpt from Angella Nazarian’s book Pioneers of the Possible: Celebrating Visionary Women of the World, © 2012 Assouline.

image: Africa Renewal (CC BY-SA)