As an activist and environmentalist who shattered boundaries for women, Wangari Maathai is a leading figure of post-colonial Kenya. Maathai has not only worked within Kenya’s government in official capacities, but has also persisted as a vocal critic of its corruption, and its environmental and human rights abuses.
Learn more about Maathai’s life and work and how it dovetails with events in modern Kenyan history: from the country’s independence from the British to its struggles to create a viable multi-party governing system.
Wangari Maathai Born
April 1, 1940
Wangari Muta is born in Nyeri, the capital city of Kenya’s Central Province. She is the third of six children and the first daughter to be born in the family. Maathai’s parents were peasant farmers and members of the Kikuyu ethnic group.
Kenyan African Union Formed
The Kenyan African Union (KAU) is established, with the aim of achieving independence from British colonizers. The first African official is appointed to Kenya’s legislature.
Mau Mau Uprising Begins
The Land Freedom Army, a growing movement against white colonial rule, launches the first armed liberation uprising in Africa. British officials and settlers dub the struggle the “Mau Mau Emergency” and respond with violence and martial law. The uprising continues until 1956.
State of Emergency Ended
Kenya lifts its state of emergency and martial law. More than 100,000 Africans and fewer than 100 Europeans die during the Mau Mau Uprising.
The British plan for Kenya’s transition to a majority African governance.
Wangari Maathai Studies Abroad
After winning a Kennedy scholarship, Wangari Maathai travels to the United States to begin her college education. She goes on to earn a bachelor’s degree in biology from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, KS and a master’s of science from the University of Pittsburgh.
Jomo Kenyatta Released from Prison
Jomo Kenyatta, a leading official of the Kenya African Union, is released after seven years of prison, hard labor and house arrest.
Kenya’s New Government
June 1, 1963
Kenya establishes its first self-governing administration, with Jomo Kenyatta as prime minister.
Kenya Officially Independent
December 12, 1963
Kenya formally declares itself independent from the British.
The Republic of Kenya
The Republic of Kenya is formed. Kenyatta becomes its first president.
Wangari Maathai Returns to Kenya
Back in Kenya, Wangari Maathai is hired at the University of Nairobi as a research assistant.
Wangari Maathai Marries
Wangari Muta marries Mwangi Mathai, a Kenyan politician.
Wangari Maathai’s Groundbreaking Ph.D.
Maathai earns a Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East and Central Africa to achieve such a distinction. She then becomes the first female professor at the University and its first woman chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy.
Maathai gives birth to the first of her three children.
Green Belt Movement Founded
After she starts promoting tree planting to rural women, Maathai forms the Green Belt Movement with help from the National Council of Women of Kenya, a women’s advocacy organization.
Daniel arap Moi Is New President
Vice President Daniel arap Moi becomes president after Jomo Kenyatta’s death.
Wangari Maathai Divorces
Wangari Maathai and Mwangi Mathai divorce.
Wangari Maathai Becomes Council Chair
Maathai becomes the chair of the National Council of Women of Kenya.
A One-Party State
President Moi and his National Assembly declare Kenya a one-party state.
Pan African Green Belt Network Formed
The Green Belt Movement forms a Pan African Green Belt Network that spurs tree-planting initiatives in countries including Uganda, Malawi, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia.
The Moi administration continues to crack down on opposition groups by jailing and torturing accused adversaries without proper trials. Kenya comes under criticism from other countries for its abuse of human rights.
The Construction of Times Tower
Kenyan government announces the construction of Times Tower, a 60-floor skyscraper in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park that will hold government offices. Maathai and the Green Belt Movement organize public protests against the project.
Multiparty System Introduced
Following pressure from opposition leaders and international criticism, the government agrees to reintroduce a multiparty system.
Protests and Politics
Maathai continues her political activism, working with pro-democracy leaders in their ongoing opposition to the corrupt Moi administration. The Freedom Corner March, a mothers’ vigil and protest against the jailing of their sons, begins in February and lasts for 11 months. While taking part in this protest Maathai is beaten by the police.
Moi is re-elected president in Kenya’s first multi-party elections in 26 years.
Moi Claims Victory
Despite pro-democracy demonstrations and a growing opposition to his administration, Moi claims victory in a contested election.
Indigenous Tree Planting
The Green Belt Movement begins planting solely indigenous trees. Protests take place against the privatization of the country’s Karura Forest.
U.S. Embassy Bombed
The U.S. Embassy in Nairobi is bombed in a terrorist attack. More than 200 people are killed and thousands more are injured.
Clashing between ethnic groups end in violence. In Kibera, Nairobi’s slum district, thousands of residents flee when fighting escalates between members of the Luo and Nubian ethnic groups.
Moi Defeated, Wangari Maathai Elected
Former vice president and opposition leader Mwai Kibaki wins the multiparty presidential election in a landslide. Daniel arap Moi’s 24 years in office and the Kenya African National Union’s four decades in power end.
Wangari Maathai is elected to Parliament, receiving 98 percent of the vote.
Moi Receives Immunity
Former President Moi is given government immunity from prosecution for charges of corruption.
Wangari Maathai Wins Nobel Prize
Wangari Maathai is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Anti-graft government official John Githongo resigns after charges that corruption and graft in the Kibaki administration have cost the country one billion dollars.
Voters reject a proposed new constitution, claiming it gives President Kibaki too much power.
Wangari Maathai Wins Legion d’Honneur
Maathai, now presiding officer of the Economic, Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC) of the African Union, is awarded France’s Legion d’Honneur.
Kibaki Claims Win
Kibaki claims to win the presidential election, but others say that the results were rigged. The Orange Democratic Movement, an opposition party, wins the majority of seats in Parliament.
Anger and frustration regarding the election results end in violence. More than 1,500 Kenyans are killed.
President Kibaki and opposition leader Raila Odinger agree to a power sharing deal brokered by former United Nations Chief Koffi Annan. The new 40-person cabinet formed as a result is the costliest and biggest in Kenyan history.