Maathai First African Woman to Win Nobel Peace Prize

Known to some as an ecologist and to others as the “tree woman,”Wangari Maathai, an African environmentalist and advocate of humanrights, has always put the needs of others before her own. Maathai became the first African woman awarded the Nobel PeacePrize last month.

Maathai is the 12th woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize,but the fifth African to win the prize.  She joins the ranksof Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and Albert JohnLutuli. 

The Nobel Prize is an international award given every year since1901.  The awards are given for excellence in physics,chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace.  The NobelCommittee starts work on February 1 and submits recommendationsuntil the early fall of the year the prizes will be awarded.

Maathai did not accept the award as validation of her ownwork.

“It isrecognition of the many efforts of African women, who continue tostruggle despite all the problems they face,” she said. 

A 64-year-oldnative of Nyeri, Kenya, Maathai began what is known today as theGreen Belt Movement.  The movement is considered a grassrootsorganization as well as an environmental campaign that addressesthe need for an increase in the forestry of Kenya.  Since itsbeginnings in 1977, more than 10 million trees have been planted toprovide wood for cooking and building. 

The movementsought to stop deforestation, but also served as aid to women andhelped to support women’s rights.  In the family unit ofKenya, the role of the woman is usually to provide meals and gatherwood for the family.  If deforestation had taken place, womenwould be forced to go further in gathering wood to preparemeals.  The Green Belt Movement allowed women to collect theirwood close to their homes, thus allowing more time for them tospend with their children and loved ones. 

Maathai feltthat the Green Belt Movement was necessary for peace within thecommunity.  When resources become scarce, people begin tofight over what little is left. 

In a quote fromBBC News she said, “I am working to make sure we not only protectthe environment, we also improve governance.”

Maathai won ascholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College, in Atchison,Kansas, and earned a master’s degree at the University ofPittsburgh.  She is currently a member of Parliament andDeputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources,and Wildlife.  She specializes in the fields of ecology andself-help and is currently a zoology professor.

Defying genderbarriers, Maathai has earned the respect from the government ofKenya.  “We’re very proud of her and she deserves all thecredit,” said Alfred Mutua, a government spokesperson.