They were young and handsome and prosperous and in love. You would have thought they had it made.

He was a successful businessman and member of Parliament. She was the first woman in her country -- indeed, the first woman in the eastern and central regions of Africa -- to earn a doctoral degree.

And that's where the trouble started. There is no equal to education in Kenya, she says. It's the most impressive credential one can claim, the most valuable possession one can acquire. And she outshone her husband, who had a mere bachelor's degree.

"In our society, people have almost idolized education," says Wangari Muta Maathai. "I think it is because when we were colonized by the British, the one thing they had that was overwhelming to us was the education, the knowledge they brought. ... And even to this day, Kenyans will do anything to send their children to school."

But if that child is a girl, she can do herself harm by advancing too far in academia. For while Kenya may still be struggling to wrench itself into the modern world, there is one area where it is not far behind other nations: sexual inequality.

"The typical African woman is supposed to be dependent, submissive, not better than her husband," says Maathai. "Let me put it this way: Education was so idolized that having a PhD was definitely a credit that should have gone to my husband rather than to myself. It was very difficult to see that the one who had the one credit that everyone wishes they had was the woman."

And so a jealousy crept into their marriage that crushed their love.

Four Cents a Tree

Wangari Maathai is 52 now, but easily looks 20 years younger as she tells this story over tea in the sunlit courtyard of the Tabard Inn. This woman's life has been shaped by her gender. It shredded her marriage, and it propelled her into a career as an environmentalist of global stature, a firebrand activist who has been arrested more than a dozen times and, most recently, was beaten into unconsciousness by Kenyan police.

Maathai was here last week to meet with members of Congress, religious leaders and scientists in preparation for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Black Reeboks peeked out from her long skirt, an indigo and chocolate tie-dyed affair that once was elegant but now is frayed. Her three children grown, she travels light and alone. And she raises trees. The Green Belt Movement she started 15 years ago employs 50,000 Kenyan women part time. They have planted more than 10 million crotons, figs, cedars, baobabs and acacias. Those are the indigenous trees that were uprooted when the Europeans came.

"They didn't know much about the local trees," she says, "so they tended to destroy the local habitat and replace it with the trees they understood, like the temperate pines, the eucalyptus, the black wattle. ... " She goes on, telling about trying to transplant the project to Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Lesotho, Zimbabwe. Talking about how women earn the equivalent of 4 U.S. cents for each seedling that survives three months in a farmer's field, and how that payment won't buy more than a couple of matches, but how it's not uncommon for a community of 30 women to plant 2,500 to 3,000 seedlings a month.

Maathai has not given up on people in favor of trees. It's more that the pressure society put on her to conform pushed her away from it, made her rebel, shaped her into someone stuck on the toll humans take on their world.

Her training at three colleges as a biologist made her a natural for that kind of thing. And then something she calls her "punishment," the public censure that followed her infamous divorce, caused her to focus on issues from a woman's point of view, sharpening her perspective.

"Women's issues exposed me to what happens to communities, and especially women and their families, children, when the environment is destroyed," she says. For it's women she sees walking the miles for firewood and water when resources are squandered. And when crops fail because the soil is depleted, it's in the faces of women and children that she sees malnutrition. And when families migrate to cities seeking jobs that are not there to find, it's children she has seen become beggars, and women abused.

She calls herself an environmentalist, but she could just as easily be labeled a politician or a philosopher or a feminist or a plain old activist. "Once you start making these linkages, you can no longer do just tree-planting," she says. "When you start working with the environment seriously, the whole arena comes: human rights, women's rights, environmental rights, children's rights, you know, everybody's rights."

The Primitive Model Maathai is in Rio today, where leaders of 150 countries and 8,000 others are converging for an 11-day talkfest sponsored by the United Nations. Like many others, she has little hope that the meeting will yield a treaty tough enough to save the world from environmental threats she considers lethal.

"How come the Americans are not worried?" she asks, noting that President Bush agreed to attend the conference only after forcing major concessions that let big business off the conservation hook. "I think they are sending a very confused message to the world. ... Does that mean that the only superpower left is the leader in pollution, in consumption, in politics, but that in this area, she's not willing to take leadership?"

She applauds a new consciousness in the religious community that urges people to "think of themselves as stewards, custodians, tenderers, rather than plunderers." And she wonders about the irony of Western nations going back to traditional societies to search for more positive ways of relating to the environment.

"I'm only the second generation of Christians," she says. "My grandparents lived in a world where they were not separate from the environment. They were not consciously, perhaps, protecting the environment, but I would say they were letting the environment be. And they took from the environment what they needed, and they did not accumulate at a personal level. And that, of course, was considered primitive and ignorant."

Nightsticks and Guns Her voice is low and falters if she talks too long. Those are the only lingering physical effects of the beating she took in Nairobi three months ago along with the mothers of eight political prisoners who are charged with treason. The mothers were staging a hunger strike and sit-in that turned into a teach-in as thousands of people came to hear their stories. The police charged with no warning, Maathai says, on horse and on foot, swinging nightsticks and threatening with guns, firing tear gas at the women and their supporters.

"The punishment for treason at home is death," she says. "The mothers are rural women. Some of them cannot even write their names. They asked me to help. Their sons have been in jail for almost two years. They have not yet been tried, and they were very afraid that if they were tried they could be killed. So for a mother, what wouldn't you do?"

Maathai woke up in a hospital, where she promptly called a press conference.

Although Kenyan Ambassador Denis Afande denies his country has targeted Maathai, he also pointedly said in one correspondence that he prefers "other quieter, non-abrasive environmentalists."

And when Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.) painted a glowing portrait of Maathai in his new book, "Earth in the Balance," he mistakenly figured she was out of her government's reach. "Although Maathai was persecuted and imprisoned in the early years of her movement, she is now considered so popular as to be untouchable, and most of the persecution has ceased," he wrote. Maathai's beating belied the senator's optimism.

Everything is up for grabs now that Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi has bowed to international pressure and agreed to allow multi-party elections after 14 years in office. And both freedom and fear are in the air as people wait to see whether he will follow through.

Kenneth Matiba, a former Kenyan cabinet minister and now-prominent member of an opposition party called FORD (For the Restoration of Democracy) with which Maathai has been associated, spoke last week during a visit to Washington of her successful efforts to oppose Moi on one of his pet projects. Moi had been planning to build a 60-story building, adorned with a four-story statue of himself, to house his political party in the center of Uhuru Park, the last large patch of green in Nairobi.

"Wangari Maathai was the only one who came out publicly to oppose the idea," said Matiba. "She opposed it and opposed it and opposed it so much that in the end it was not done. Wangari Maathai has earned herself a great deal of support."

'Not Everybody's Clapping' Maathai will need that support when she goes home later this month to face charges from an incident last January, when 150 policemen surrounded her house and arrested her on charges of spreading false rumors of an impending coup. Her defense lies in the Kenyan constitution, which she says guarantees free speech.

"I have had the fortune of breaking a lot of records -- first woman this, first woman that -- and I think that created a lot of jealousy without me realizing. And sometimes we don't quite realize that not everybody's clapping when we're succeeding."

She sort of lost track of people's reactions when she became the first woman professor, and then the first woman to chair a department, at the University of Nairobi. She was happy with her life and thought her husband was too -- until he launched a very public, nasty divorce action against her. When it was granted, she denounced the judges and landed in jail on contempt charges.

Enraged and humiliated, Maathai decided to resign her position at the university and run for Parliament, where she could stand toe-to-toe with her husband and his supporters. First she was disqualified on a technicality from running, and then the school refused to take her back.

"I had to be shown a lesson," she says.

"Now that my children are big, I am beginning to see the damage this may have done to their little inner selves when they were small. ... They are so busy trying to be normal, to be like other children. But they are constantly reminded that they are not quite normal. The word they use back home is that they are from 'broken' families. It's as if because you come from a broken family you are definitely broken and you can never make it, because your destiny is set by your parents."

Another effect of modernization, she says with a small smile.

"Maybe one day they can look back and say, 'I should tell you what my mommy went through at a time when it was not accepted that a woman should be that highly educated, or a woman should be talented and show it.' "