|Professor Wangari Maathai, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2004.|
Staying in school
Born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, Ms. Maathai followed a path rarely taken by girls from rural Kenya: she pursued higher education. After earning an undergraduate degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas, she went on to receive her Master's Degree from the University of Pittsburgh. When she returned to Kenya, Ms. Maathai taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi. She became chair of the University’s Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and an associate professor in 1977.
For Ms. Maathai, staying in school was the key to success. “It’s very important for all children to go to school – especially for the girls – to stay in school and to complete their education. I can say without exaggeration that I would not be what I am today if I didn’t go to school, if I didn’t go to college or if I didn’t stay in school as long as I could.”
Looking back at her school years, Ms. Maathai is grateful for the opportunities she enjoyed. “In the course of that time, many people touched my life. They encouraged me, and gave me the values and sense of commitment to serve the communities. When I got back to my country, I knew I had the skills, the knowledge, and the commitment to change society. Then I found myself working within poor rural communities, where I found my call.”
Empowerment through environment
In 1977, Ms. Maathai started the Green Belt Movement to help fulfil needs identified by rural women, including lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income. She introduced the idea of planting trees in order to improve rural women’s quality of life and at the same time conserve the environment.
Together, Ms. Maathai and the women who became involved in the Movement planted over 30 million trees. These trees provided firewood, food, shelter, and income for children’s education and household needs.
“By taking care of the environment, by supporting women, by putting a little money into their hands when you buy seedlings that they raise, by stabilizing the soil so that they can grow food, these women know that we are helping them with their children. In many ways, I have always felt that taking care of the environment is the other side of what UNICEF does,” said Ms. Maathai of her work, for which she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.
“In the course of that period we learned a lot. We shifted from just simply planting trees to educating ourselves, empowering ourselves, and addressing other issues that became relevant in the process, such as governance, sustainable management of resources, and the protection of the forest.”
“Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, do not feel discouraged.”
Ms. Maathai was arrested numerous times for her campaign against deforestation. She has also been imprisoned, and once was attacked while planting trees. When asked what has kept her going over the years despite the opposition, she answers: “The transformation I saw in the women I was working with really helped me stay in focus. I knew I was moving in the right direction. Of course, people stopped me, and I understood why they stopped me. They didn’t want me to empower the people, to inform them. They didn’t want to give these people a chance. I had been given a chance, and it had changed my life for the better. Now I want these people to have a chance, and I am very happy that I was never discouraged.”
Nobel laureate’s message for children
Wangari Maathai has been a groundbreaker. She is the first women in Central or Eastern Africa to hold a Ph.D., the first woman to head a university department in Kenya, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
These are her words of encouragement for children worldwide:
“Whatever you are doing, wherever you are, do not feel discouraged. Be brave and take advantage of the situation you are in. Protect yourselves from distractive activities and be strong! Allow yourself to be healthy, to work hard, and do your best. Stay in school! Especially for the girls, I want to say the sky is the limit, give yourself a chance!
“There are many people who love you, who care for you, who want the best for you, and are working day and night, especially through UNICEF, to give you a better life.”