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Maathai, Wangari

in full Wangari Muta Maathai

Wangari Maathai.
© Micheline Pelletier/Corbis

(born April 1, 1940, Nyeri, Kenya) Kenyan politician and environmental activist who was awarded the 2004 Nobel Prize for Peace, the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize.

Maathai was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College; B.S. in biology, 1964) and at the University of Pittsburgh (M.S., 1966). In 1971 she received a Ph.D. at the University of Nairobi, where she then taught veterinary anatomy.

While working with the National Council of Women of Kenya, she developed the idea that village women could improve the environment by planting trees to provide a fuel source and to slow the processes of deforestation and desertification. The Green Belt Movement, an organization she founded in 1977, had, by the early 21st century, planted some 30 million trees and inspired similar grassroots movements in other African countries. Maathai was elected to Kenya's National Assembly with 98 percent of the vote in 2002 and in 2003 was appointed assistant minister of environment, natural resources, and wildlife. The Nobel Prize committee commended her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular.” She is the author of The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience (1988; rev. ed. 2003).

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