The environmental activist Wangari Maathai (b. 1940) grew up in a farming community in Kenya. Recognizing Maathai’s potential, her teachers at the Loreto Limuru Girls School helped her to get a scholarship to Mount Scholastica College (now known as Benedictine College), a Catholic women’s school in Atchison, Kansas. Maathai’s attendance was part of Tom Mboya’s “airlift” program, whereby hundreds of talented Kenyans traveled to the US for a higher education. Maathai earned a B.S. in biology in 1964, and later studied at the University of Pittsburgh. After returning to Kenya, she earned a PhD at the University of Nairobi, becoming one of the first women in sub-Saharan Africa to do so.
By the late 1980s, Maathai had become one of her country’s leading environmental advocates, calling on the government to reverse the trend of deforestation and irresponsible development. Her efforts also sought to address the condition of women; indeed, one of her best known initiatives was to recruit and pay women to plant and care for trees, a project that oversaw hundreds of nurseries throughout Kenya and the surrounding region. For this, she received multiple awards, including the Goldman Prize (for environmental activists), the Africa Prize for Leadership, the Better World Award, and in 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African American woman, and the first environmentalist, to receive the honor.
From Oxford African American Studies Center’s ‘Africans in America’ photo essay series.
Image credit: Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai with Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, via Wikimedia Commons.

The environmental activist Wangari Maathai (b. 1940) grew up in a farming community in Kenya. Recognizing Maathai’s potential, her teachers at the Loreto Limuru Girls School helped her to get a scholarship to Mount Scholastica College (now known as Benedictine College), a Catholic women’s school in Atchison, Kansas. Maathai’s attendance was part of Tom Mboya’s “airlift” program, whereby hundreds of talented Kenyans traveled to the US for a higher education. Maathai earned a B.S. in biology in 1964, and later studied at the University of Pittsburgh. After returning to Kenya, she earned a PhD at the University of Nairobi, becoming one of the first women in sub-Saharan Africa to do so.

By the late 1980s, Maathai had become one of her country’s leading environmental advocates, calling on the government to reverse the trend of deforestation and irresponsible development. Her efforts also sought to address the condition of women; indeed, one of her best known initiatives was to recruit and pay women to plant and care for trees, a project that oversaw hundreds of nurseries throughout Kenya and the surrounding region. For this, she received multiple awards, including the Goldman Prize (for environmental activists), the Africa Prize for Leadership, the Better World Award, and in 2004, the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the first African American woman, and the first environmentalist, to receive the honor.

From Oxford African American Studies Center’s ‘Africans in America’ photo essay series.

Image credit: Nobel Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai with Barack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya, via Wikimedia Commons.