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Kenya's 'Green Militant' Wins Nobel Peace Prize

She was famous at the time for saying publicly, "We can provide parks for rhino and elephants; why can't we provide open spaces for the people? Why are we creating environmental havoc in urban areas?"

A lawsuit she filed against the $200 million, Moi-backed project was dismissed. But by then, her protests had scared away investors.


American-educated biologist Wangari Maathai, 64, speaks on the telephone to well-wishers near Nyeri, her home in the foothills of Mount Kenya. (Karel Prinsloo -- AP)

In 1992, she and other women stripped naked in downtown Nairobi to protest police abuses. She said that in taking off their clothes, the women had "resorted to something they knew traditionally would act on the men. . . . They stripped to show their nakedness to their sons. It is a curse to see your mother naked."

On Jan. 8, 1999, she was whipped on the head and arrested by security forces allegedly hired by Moi to disperse Green Belt Movement members who were protesting the clearing of Karura Forest near Nairobi for a luxury housing development. She caught the nation's attention by insisting on signing her police report in blood from her head injury. The houses were never built.

She is also a rare African feminist, whose husband left her in a nasty public divorce. He won the settlement dispute on the basis that she was, by her own account, "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control."

She has been a passionate fighter for women's rights, leading by example on a continent where women often live as second-class citizens, do most of the labor, but have the legal rights of children. Their rights to own property, for instance, are often limited.

Maathai grew up in a Kenyan village, the daughter of farmers. She excelled at the local school and applied repeatedly for scholarships to continue her education, eventually winning one to attend college in the United States. In 1964, she received a degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan. She received a master's degree two years later from the University of Pittsburgh and, in 1971, a PhD from the University of Nairobi. That made her the first woman in eastern and central Africa to earn a doctorate. She also became the first female professor at the University of Nairobi.

At times, she has generated jealousy among her peers.

"I have had the fortune of breaking a lot of records," Maathai said in a 1992 interview with The Washington Post. "First woman this. First woman that. And I think that created a lot of jealousy without me realizing. Sometimes we don't quite realize that not everybody's clapping when we're succeeding."

David Makali, director of Nairobi's Media Institute, said he hoped Maathai's newfound global fame would draw attention to a current land-grab controversy in Kenya. Top government officials, including Moi and another former president, Jomo Kenyatta, are accused of seizing public lands for their personal use and arranging the clearing of trees for fast profits.

The award "is fabulous news . . . for Kenya and Africa," Makali said. "This will increase the visibility of the country and our campaign to be better watchdogs over our country's land."

Last week, Maathai threatened to give up her seat in parliament to protest a plan to use forestland for small-scale farming. "I would rather give up my seat than see our forests destroyed," she said Friday.

She added that, prize or no prize, she would continue her fight, for the sake of young Africans.

"The generation that destroys the environment is usually not the generation that suffers," she said. "If they go into the forest, they will be digging their own graves and that of their children and grandchildren."


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