In 2004, Kenyan environmental political activist, Dr. Wangari Muta Maathai, became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
Maathai was born April 1, 1940 in the small village of Ihithe within the Nyeri District of the Central Highlands of Kenya. An excellent student, Maathai was one of the 300 Kenyan students selected for President John F. Kennedy’s “Kennedy Airlift” project that gave them opportunities to earn an education in the United States.
Maathai studied at Mount St. Scholastica College, now known as Benedictine College, in Atchison, Kan. She left the school with a bachelor’s in science degree in 1964.
After completing her undergraduate studies, she was awarded funding from the Africa-America Institute and entered the University of Pittsburgh and earned her master’s degree in biology. At the school, Maathai was introduced to environmental restoration, which would become her life’s calling.
After returning to Kenya, Maathai worked at the University College of Nairobi. Maathai has said in past interviews that as she become more successful she faced gender bias in her home country. But she met and eventually married fellow American-educated Kenya Mwangi Maathai during her time at the university. In 1971, Maathai became the first Eastern African woman to become a Ph.D, earning it in veterinary anatomy.
In the 70’s, after marriage and motherhood, Maathai began dipping her toe in the activism pool. She campaigned for equal rights for women workers at the university and attempted to form unions. Maathai was also active in the Kenya Red Cross and other nonprofit groups. Labeled a firebrand for her outspoken approach, Maathai claims that her activism and drive led to her divorce.