Meet the First Black Woman to Win a Nobel Peace Prize

Wangari Muta Maathai

Wangari Muta Maathai, also known as "Tree Woman", was an activist and ecologist from Kenya. For her remarkable work, she became the first Black woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize.
Born on April 1, 1940 in Niyeri, Kenya, her family was kĩkũyũ, the largest ethnic group in the country. As a beneficiary of a project between Kenya and the U.S. through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, Wangari was able to attend college in the United States. She studied at both Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh.

After graduating college, she returned to Kenya and became the first woman at the University of Nairobi to become an associate professor of anatomy and the head of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy.

Wangari was a known advocate of equal benefits for other women who worked at the University. In fact, in 1977, she founded the Green Belt Movement in collaboration with the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). This movement dealt with the protection of the environment, giving relevance to African women, and offering initiatives and sustainable living conditions for them. Thanks to the economic funds for that movement, the initiative expanded to also create environmental awareness in other countries.

“We continue to appeal to the rich countries in the world to consider patterns of lifestyle that can reduce pollution of the environment. To not do that is to put the burden on the poor countries, which do not consume as much, don’t pollute as much but do suffer from that pollution,” Wangari once said. She was explaining how tree-planting campaigns can slow deforestation and help the poor.

In 2004, she was honored by the Nobel committee for standing at the “front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and throughout Africa.”

Sadly, in September 2011, Wangari Muta Maathai died in a Nairobi hospital after a battle with ovarian cancer.