If you haven’t heard of her, it’s a damn shame, and that’s got to end right now. She’s completely inspiring.
Maathi was born in colonial Kenya in 1940, was educated in a convent school, and went to the US for college, where she witnessed the struggle for Civil Rights firsthand. Meanwhile, after years of struggle and sacrifice, Kenyans finally succeeded in throwing off the yoke of the colonizing British in 1963, and Kenya was established as an independent republic in 1964.
Maathai returned to her country to work at the University of Nairobi, and eventually earned a PhD there in 1971–the first woman in central Africa to earn that degree–before joining the faculty of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy.
Within a few years, she got involved w/ tree planting in rural areas like those in which grew up, in an attempt to recreate the heavily forested pre-colonial landscape, which had been clear-cut by the British for farming. She formed the Green Belt Movement in 1977, which was based on environmental conservation, civic education, and building local leadership–much of it woman-headed.
For years, Maathai and her organization have spoken out for democracy and grassroots activism, and against political oppression. She suffered social and physical violence as well as plenty of verbal abuse about her “inappropriate” role in public life, but persevered, eventually winning the favor of the Kenyan people, who elected her serve in Parliament (with 98% of the vote!) in 2002.
Her decades of service also earned Maathai worldwide recognition, and, in 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize. 2006 brought her the Legion d’Honneur. Today, Maathai is the head of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council of the African Union, and continues her work with the Green Belt Movement, which has spread across the continent.
For her lifetime of activism and service, her bravery and generosity, her ongoing willingness to work, fight, and sing for freedom and justice, I declare Wangari Maathai one hell of an Honorary Harpy.
Find out more about Professor Maathai by reading her memoir Unbowed, or her site, and check out Independent Lens, generally, too: they’re currently streaming ten different documentaries for free, including programs on the child sex trade in Bombay and the 1977 National Women’s Conference.