For the first time in the more than a century of Nobel Prize Awards, Kenyan ecologist Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize on October 8, 2004. The Nobel committee praised “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Maathai was born in Nyeri in 1940. One of few girls given the opportunity to pursue an education, Maathai left her native country to earn a bachelors of arts in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and a master's degree at the University of Pittsburgh.
She returned to Kenya and worked in veterinary medicine research at the University of Nairobi, and despite opposition from male staff, she eventually obtained her Ph.D and became the head of the veterinary medicine faculty. When her husband ran for Kenyan Parliament in 1970, Maathai became involved by organizing a national grassroots organization, which helped find work for poor people while simultaneously improving the environment.
Her efforts were the foundation for her Green Belt Movement, founded in 1977, with a mission to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women. Her Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations.
In addition to touring the world to speak about poverty and environment degradation and being dedicated to helping the Kenyan environment, Maathai was frowned upon by Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi. She ran for Parliament in 1997 and her candidacy was thrown out before the election. She was elected into Parliament in 2002 by new President Mwai Kibabi and was appointed Deputy Minister in the Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife in January 2003.
Maathai was a profound scientist and ecologist, activist, feminist, professor and politician who influenced the world with her mission to promote environmental progression by improving the quality of human life through nature. She died in September 2011 of cancer, in Nairobi, Kenya.
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(Photo: Charley Gallay/Getty Images)