Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Born in the Central Highlands of Kenya in 1940, it was Maathai’s academic prowess that initially gained her recognition. During a period in which the majority of Kenyan girls had no access to education, Maathai excelled. After attending Loreto Girls’ High School, she was selected as part of the 'Kennedy airlift', an initiative of the Kennedy family and United States government, to study for a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica in Kansas. She went on to take a master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh.
After returning to Kenya in 1966, she joined the University of Nairobi’s School of Veterinary Medicine and became the first woman in central and east Africa to receive a Ph.D. There she began a career in academia, and continued on her pioneering route to become the first woman to be appointed professor and again the first woman to chair a department within the University of Nairobi.
During her involvement with the National Council of Women in Kenya, Maathai decided to combine her passions for equality and environmental conservation via the establishment of the Green Belt Movement. The Movement, which has assisted in the planting of approximately 45 million trees in Kenya, combines conservation with social and economic empowerment for women. Her influence quickly spread to other countries via the establishment of the Pan African Green Belt Network.
Maathai continued her work on environmental conservation and when the country moved towards multiparty politics in 2002, she was elected as a member of parliament and in 2003 became Deputy Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife.
Her career has not been without controversy. As a vehement opponent of former President Daniel arap Moi, Maathai was arrested on multiple occasions after successful campaigns to stop further construction on public land and a year-long vigil to free political prisoners. In spite of such arrests, her commitment to both the environment and democratic freedoms within Kenya remained strong. As recently as 2008, she was sprayed with tear gas while protesting against a government plan to enhance the number of ministers in cabinet.
Maathai died on 25 September, aged 71. A true pioneer for women's rights and for the environment, her death from cancer is a loss both to Kenya and to the wider continent. Maathai leaves behind three children – Waweru, Wanjira and Muta – and one granddaughter, Ruth.