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What did it take to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize? For Wangari Muta Maathai, it only took about 20 million trees. The selection of Maathai, chosen last fall over people like Pope John Paul II, marks the second year in a row a Pitt graduate has won a Nobel Prize.

Nobel Roots

Leah Samuel

Wangari Maathai plants one of the Green Belt Movement’s 20 million trees.
It is the 1970s, and Wangari Muta Maathai (Wahn-gahr'-ee Moó-tah Mah'-tye) has returned to the neighborhood where she grew up, except it’s not a neighborhood in the American sense of the word. It’s the Tetu section of the Nyeri district in Central Kenya, a region that resembled a nature reserve more than a residential area during Maathai’s childhood.

But Tetu has changed in the seven years Maathai has been away. The winds of her homeland no longer carry the fresh, green smells of a fertile land blossoming with trees, plants, and flowers. Instead, she finds once-clear rivers choked with silt, and where bunches of trees once stood, she sees growing patches of barren ground, raided for timber and prepped for development or the cultivation of more lucrative crops.

Maathai had left Nyeri to study in the United States, including graduate study at the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied biology and earned a Master of Science degree in 1965. Her education was meant to prepare her for laboratories and classrooms. But when she gazed at what Nyeri had become, she wasn’t happy with what she saw. She found that the future of the land was like that of the country’s women—at the will of others and largely uncertain. And at that moment, in the formerly green place she would once again call home, Maathai decided that her years of learning would be used instead to take the land back to its fertile past, to create a new future for both the land and the women who traditionally tended it.

It is 1992, and Charles Ralph is in a hotel with his wife, settling in from a long day by tuning in to the news on television. They had only caught the tail end of the report, but it was enough for them to see that someone they knew had been arrested.

“That’s Wangari,” his wife said.

It was indeed. The features—full cheeks, narrow eyes, and a determined expression set in the round, deep-brown face—were older now but still the same as they had been more than 25 years before, when Ralph, a professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Biological Sciences, served as faculty advisor to the eager, hardworking young Kenyan woman with the easy smile and easier manner.

That graduate student, with her thesis on quails, was headed for educating future scientists within the safe confines of a university, not being dragged away by police for staging a protest over the use of Kenya’s land.

“As far as I knew, she was this demure, traditional graduate student,” says Ralph. After seeing Maathai on the news, he realized there was much more to her. “We were dealing with a radical, very activist person.”

It is 2004, and Mary Jane Phelan is walking along the side of a road in Nairobi, trying to avoid traffic while shouting into a cell phone. “Call me back later,” she says, her voice echoing from Kenya to the United States. She is preoccupied right now with finding a matatu, Nairobi’s version of public transportation—a 14-seat Nissan van. Like the other employees at the Green Belt Movement office, Phelan travels by matatu. “They fill up as soon as rush hour starts,” explaining why her attention must be fully devoted to her matatu search. She doesn’t want to be late for work at the Green Belt Movement offices.

The movement, founded by Maathai, has planted about 20 million trees throughout Kenya and has taught and inspired other organizations to establish similar tree planting initiatives in Tanzania, Uganda, Ethiopia, and other African countries.

Maathai bounces between the organization’s office and Kenya’s Parliament, where she was elected as a representative of the Nyeri district in 2002 and is also the assistant minister for environment, natural resources, and wildlife. Mwai Kibaki, the president of Kenya, appointed her to that post three years ago.

“She starts early and ends late,” says Phelan, an American who is living in Kenya for a year to volunteer with the Green Belt Movement. She decided to volunteer there in large part because of Maathai’s reputation.

It isn’t just Phelan who is impressed by the work of Maathai. Last fall, the prize committee at the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo considered Maathai for the Nobel Peace Prize along with international luminaries like President George W. Bush and Pope John Paul II. The committee chose Maathai.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to many politicians and others actively working to stop and prevent war at all levels. However, this is the first time it has been awarded to someone who is primarily an environmentalist.

During her Nobel ceremony remarks, Maathai said: “Activities that devastate the environment and societies continue unabated. Today we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system. I call on leaders, especially in Africa, to expand democratic space and build fair and just societies.”

It’s Maathai’s broader environmental stance that captured the atten-tion of Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee believes that there are many different roads to peace,” says Lundestad. “We believe there is a connection between environmental preservation and peace. Wangari is also a human rights activist,” he adds. “She has fought especially for the rights of women, and that is very important within the African context.”

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to many politicians and others actively working to stop and prevent war at all levels. However, this is the first time it has been awarded to someone who is primarily an environmentalist.

She also serves on the United Nation’s Advisory Board on Disarmament Matters and the boards of The Jane Goodall Institute, the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, the National Council of Women of Kenya, and other organizations devoted to women, the environment, and peace. When she last ran for her seat in Parliament, she received 98 percent of the vote.

No wonder Phelan is impressed. “Despite the [Nobel] brouhaha, she retains a complete sense of grassroots sensibility. There is no place she can go where she won’t be approached by at least three complete strangers, and she finds out where they’re from and talks to them,” marvels Phelan, who explains that Maathai is something of a folk hero in Africa. “Even if she’s tired, and someone asks a significant question, she just lights up from within. I don’t know where she finds the energy and enthusiasm.”

She is so committed to her work that media requests are handed off to others while she tends to her duties. She doesn’t mind staying out of the spotlight and letting those close to her tell the Green Belt Movement story to Pitt Magazine and other publications whose requests for interviews have landed in a six-inch deep pile that the movement’s staff is “plowing through.”

Born in Kenya in 1940, Maathai developed a relationship with the land very early. “She spent a lot of time with her mother, farming and fetching water,” explains Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira (One-geé-rah). “She had her own little garden.”

But, like other girls and young women of that time, Maathai was des-tined for a life in which she would remain uneducated and have little control over her own future. Her family knew, however, that she had too brilliant a mind for that.

“Most girls didn’t go to school,” Wanjira says. “But she was very curi-ous and very bright. Her oldest brother was instrumental in deciding that she would go to school.”

After high school, Maathai received a rare opportunity to leave Africa and study in America. An initiative created by President John F. Kennedy allowed a number of African students to get college educations in the United States.

“She came to be included on the Kennedy list,” says Wanjira. “The idea was that bright students would be educated in the West and then would return for nation-building.”

Maathai majored in biological sciences at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., earning a bachelor’s degree there in 1964.

She then came to Pitt. Ralph, her advisor, says that she adjusted well. “Just a typical, westernized American academic,” he says. “She was very smiling, agreeable, kind of low-key, very focused, very dedicated.”

After earning her Master of Science degree from Pitt in 1965, she went on to doctoral studies in Germany and Kenya, earning a PhD in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later taught veterinary anatomy. She became chair of the university’s Department of Animal Physiology in 1976 and an associate professor in 1977. In both cases, she was the first woman in that part of Africa to hold those positions.

Her political activity began at the time when Maathai joined the National Council of Women of Kenya and ran unsuccessfully for Parliament in 1977. That campaign ended her academic career. “She couldn’t be in the university and run for office,” says Wanjira. “And when the run for office didn’t work, the university would not take her back.”

It was while volunteering with the National Council of Women of Kenya that Maathai introduced the idea of planting trees.

“The land was dry,” says Wanjira. “The results of deforestation were being felt. There was a lack of firewood and there was food insecurity. There were no building materials for huts, no plants to feed the animals.”

Maathai couldn’t believe what had become of Nyeri. She developed the tree-planting project into a grassroots organization, called the Green Belt Movement, whose projects find ways to protect the environment and improve women’s self-sufficiency and quality of life.

Through the Green Belt Movement, women learn to support themselves with work that enhances the environment, such as beekeeping and organic farming. They are also paid for each tree they plant and keep alive. The women, in turn, use the money to buy food, supplies, and livestock so they can become more self-sufficient. Many of these same women become active in lobbying local governments to prevent deforestation and to restore areas destroyed by construction and other development projects.

Establishing the Green Belt Movement hasn’t come without cost to Maathai. She was once vilified by the Kenyan government for opposing the building of a skyscraper planned for the middle of Uhuru Park, a prime green space in Nairobi. Maathai was also arrested several times during her campaigns against deforestation in Kenya. Another time, she was beaten unconscious by police at a protest. Days later, she led a hunger strike. On a personal level, her politician husband divorced her, complaining, according to several media accounts, that her education made her “too strong, too successful, too stubborn, and too hard to control.”

These day-to-day challenges forced her two children to grow up quickly. Her son, Muta Maathai, a cancer researcher now living in Philadelphia, says, “We worried for her safety; sometimes she was clubbed, and we would have to go to the hospital to visit her.” Muta, just a youngster during the early years of the Green Belt Movement, used to pray for her all the time. Looking back now, he understands her commitment. “I feel that when you find your passion, the last thing you want to be told is not to follow it.”

Daughter Wanjira also remembers what her mom had to go through. “There was a lot of disinformation and misunderstanding about the work she was doing. It was misconstrued as political,” says Wanjira, who lives in Nairobi and is the international liaison for the Green Belt Movement.

Maathai, the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate, was seen by many Kenyans as corrupted by Western education and culture. Involving women in her projects and protests brought widespread criticism, ridicule, and accusations that she and the women who worked with her were becoming like the “crazy” women of the United States. Activism in Kenya was not generally an acceptable role for women when Maathai started the Green Belt Movement.

Gender, though, has never been an issue for Maathai, says Wanjira. She believes her mother is driven by the practical needs of her country, not by feminism.

“The women are important (to focus on) because they are the family caretakers—they tend the land and fetch the water—but the underlying philosophy of the Green Belt Movement is universal.”

It’s universal enough to win the Nobel Prize. Maathai, after learning of the prize, wept with joy. And, just as she had done to celebrate her return to her homeland 30 years ago, she planted a tree.

Leah Samuel is a freelance writer who lives in Pittsburgh.

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