Seeds of Hope
Over the course of a three-decade career, Maathai, 64, has won many such victories, including founding the wildly successful Green Belt Movement, an organization that has helped women plant millions of trees across Africa. On Oct. 8 she scored another win when her efforts to protect Kenya's resources and empower its people were recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize, the first ever given to an African woman. "She is a Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi or Cesar Chavez of Kenya," says Kerry Kennedy, who met Maathai through the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights. "She's worked for peaceful solutions in the midst of violence and darkness."
In choosing Maathai as its peace laureate, the Nobel committee broadened its definition of the prize, typically given to world leaders working to end international conflict. This year's prize has also fueled controversy over Maathai's public speculation that the AIDS virus was developed by Westerners as a weapon to attack Africans. "[HIV] is created by a scientist for biological warfare," she told reporters on Oct. 9. In her defense, Maathai's supporters say her views on AIDS, while shocking in the West, are quite common in her homeland.
Certainly Maathai, a divorced mother of three, has always carved out her own path. The daughter of farmers, she grew up poor in the rural town of Nyeri but excelled at school. In 1960 she qualified for a scholarship program established by future President John F. Kennedy to bring foreign students to the U.S., and she spent four years at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kans., where she studied biology. "I'd never seen so much flat land or so much corn," she says. But it wasn't just the landscape that impressed her. Moved by the U.S. civil rights movement, Maathai returned home determined to make changes in her own poverty-stricken country. In 1971 she completed a Ph.D. in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in eastern Africa to earn a doctorate.
Struck by the plight of rural women, whose supply of firewood and building material was disappearing because of deforestation, Maathai launched the Green Belt Movement in 1977. "Women needed income and they needed resources be-cause theirs were being depleted," she says. "So we decided to solve both problems together." By distributing seedlings to hard-hit farming communities, the group has since helped plant more than 30 million trees and, in the process, given hope and a feeling of self-sufficiency to a generation of their countrywomen. "The role she played in the transformation of Kenya was outstanding," says Anna Tibaijuka, executive director of U.N.-Habitat, an agency that builds houses for the poor.
Soon Maathai and her group were pushing for democratic reforms and running into trouble with Daniel arap Moi, the dictator who ruled Kenya. Maathai was arrested again and again. "She was in danger," says her son Muta Maathai, 31, a research technician in Philadelphia who, like Maathai's other children, was sent to the U.S. for safety. When the ruler's party finally lost power in 2002, some observers credited Maathai's protests over his Nairobi skyscraper as the turning point. "Wangari spoke against power when no one else was willing to," says Maina Kiai, chairman of the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. Now, with the $1.3 million Nobel Prize—which she plans to reinvest in the Green Belt Movement—she has the attention of the world. "It's recognition of all the work we do at the grassroots level that doesn't make news," says Maathai, "but it makes a lot of difference."
J.D. Heyman. Alexandra Polier in Nairobi, Ellen Tumposky in London and Mary Green in Philadelphia