A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was an environmental and human rights activist, specifically, women’s rights. Her life experiences informed her conceptualization of human rights in two ways. Firstly, she was born and brought up when it was challenging to get educational rights. She says that “there were no schools on or near the settlers’ farms. Even as I was growing up, it was not easy for the workers to send their children to school. This was a reality that was to shape my life.”[1] Besides, she was lucky to attend school in the Mau Mau era when a state of emergency was declared halting education for many youths of her age. Maathai had the privilege to study abroad, and after returning to Kenya, she was at the forefront in fighting for women’s rights, including girls’ education. This action could largely be motivated by the fact that many girls lacked basic education, which could help them navigate life and fight for their rights as women.  She claims that she was one of the very few girls who had gotten to secondary school.[2] Hence, its the social context in which she grew up that conceptualized women’s rights activism.

Secondly, she lost an employment opportunity in the University College of Nairobi due to tribal and gender biasness. After concluding her studies in the United States, Maathai returned to Kenya to take up the lead role as a research assistant of the zoology department at the college. However, her plea was rejected because of being a woman and tribal biasness, and the position was given to someone else. She states that in the now University of Nairobi, “the professor of zoology practiced tribalism and sexism and denied me the job.”[3]  It is a life experience that might have informed her decision to fight for women’s rights.  Despite being educated with the right skills, she was still denied employment, signaling that women faced gender discrimination. Nevertheless, in her Green Belt Movement, Maathai advocated for women’s rights and even provided approximately 30,000 women with new knowledge, skills, and job opportunities. Besides, many other experiences, such as being the first woman to be awarded a Ph.D. doctorate, also empowered her to fight for women’s rights.


There are various sources that Maathai pulled from to inform her ideas of environmental and human activism. The first source is her own experiences. As discussed in the previous section, her life experience, particularly her childhood era and gender discrimination, compelled her to conceptualize human rights activism. She learned that human rights were being violated because she experienced the violation herself, making her life experiences one of the sources.

Another major source is her achievement as the renowned peace prize. In her Nobel speech, she stated her selection as the renowned peace price challenged her to take the activism. She asserted that equitable development and sustainable environmental management are crucial in maintaining world peace. Both local and international media recognized her and began inviting her to address her activism agendas.[4] Additionally, she urged the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, her fellow activist, in her Nobel speech. It signals that being named a peace ambassador prompted her to go deeper into environmental and human rights activism. It acted as a challenge because she was then at the forefront, and to reciprocate the recognition, she took up the lead in activism.

Lastly, she pulled her ideas from the urban development that was going on in Kenya. She sought to protect the Kenyan lands and forests from the destruction and devastation imposed by development. One of her most remarkable situations regarding development and environment happened in 1989.[5] She influenced her followers to stage a demonstration at Uhuru Park in Nairobi to prevent the construction of a skyscraper that was commencing.[6] She posited that the skyscraper was an enemy of the environment and would be hazardous. The campaign was internationally recognized, making it successful. Eventually, the construction was halted. The park where they demonstrated was later named the ‘Freedom Corner.’[7] Therefore, urban developments acted as sources where she pulled her environmental activism ideas.

Bibliography Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. London: Arrow B

[1] Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. London: Arrow Books, 2009. P.15

[2] Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. London. P.71

[3] Maathai, Wangari. Unbowed. London. P.101

[4] Ibid. p.177.

[5] Ibid. p.184.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid. p.219.