On 1 April 1940, Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya. Her family was Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, and had lived in the area for several generations. Around 1943, Maathai's family relocated to a White-owned farm in the Rift Valley, near the town of Nakuru, where her Father had found work. Late in 1947, she returned to Ihithe with her mother, as two of her brothers were attending primary school in the village, and there was no schooling available on the farm where her Father worked. Her Father remained at the farm. Shortly afterward, at the age of eight, she joined her brothers at Ihithe Primary School.
At age eleven, Maathai moved to St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri. Maathai studied at St. Cecilia's for four years. During this time, she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism. She was involved with the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted "to serve God by serving fellow human beings." Studying at St. Cecilia's, she was sheltered from the ongoing Mau Mau uprising, which forced her mother to move from their homestead to an emergency village in Ihithe. When she completed her studies there in 1956, she was rated first in her class, and was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School in Limuru.
As the end of East African colonialism approached, Kenyan politicians, such as Tom Mboya, were proposing ways to make education in Western nations available to promising students. John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of some 300 Kenyans selected to study in the United States in September 1960.
She received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas, where she majored in biology, with minors in chemistry and German. After receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1964, she studied at the University of Pittsburgh for a master's degree in biology. Her graduate studies there were funded by the Africa-America Institute, and during her time in Pittsburgh, she first experienced environmental restoration, when local environmentalists pushed to rid the city of air pollution. In January 1966, Maathai received her MSc in biological sciences, and was appointed to a position as research assistant to a professor of zoology at University College of Nairobi.
Upon returning to Kenya, Maathai dropped her forename, preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta. When she arrived at the university to start her new job, she was informed that it had been given to someone else. Maathai believed this was because of gender and tribal bias. After a two-month job search, Professor Reinhold Hofmann, from the University of Giessen in Germany, offered her a job as a research assistant in the microanatomy section of the newly established Department of Veterinary Anatomy in the School of Veterinary Medicine at University College of Nairobi. In April 1966, she met Mwangi Maathai, another Kenyan who had studied in America, who would later become her husband. She also rented a small shop in the city, and established a general store, at which her sisters worked. In 1967, at the urging of Professor Hofmann, she traveled to the University of Giessen in Germany in pursuit of a doctorate. She studied both at Giessen and the University of Munich.
In the spring of 1969, she returned to Nairobi to continue studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer. In May, she and Mwangi Maathai married. Later that year, she became pregnant with her first child, and her husband campaigned for a seat in Parliament, narrowly losing. During the course of the election, Tom Mboya, who had been instrumental in founding the program which sent her overseas, was assassinated. This led to President Kenyatta effectually ending multi-party democracy in Kenya. Shortly after, her first son, Waweru, was born. In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a PhD, her doctorate in veterinary anatomy, from the University College of Nairobi, which became the University of Nairobi the following year. She completed her dissertation on the development and differentiation of gonads in bovines. Her daughter, Wanjira, was born in December 1971.
In 1974, Maathai's family expanded to include her third child, son Muta. Her husband campaigned again for a seat in Parliament, hoping to represent the Lang'ata constituency, and won. During his campaign, he had promised to find jobs to limit the rising unemployment in Kenya. These promises led Maathai to connect her ideas of environmental restoration to providing jobs for the unemployed and led to the founding of Envirocare Ltd., a Business that involved the planting of trees to conserve the environment, involving ordinary people in the process. This led to the planting of her first tree nursery, collocated with a government tree nursery in Karura Forest. Envirocare ran into multiple problems, primarily dealing with funding. The project failed. However, through conversations concerning Envirocare and her work at the Environment Liaison Centre, UNEP made it possible to send Maathai to the first UN conference on human settlements, known as Habitat I, in June 1976.
Maathai continued to teach at Nairobi, becoming a senior lecturer in anatomy in 1975, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman in Nairobi appointed to any of these positions. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university, going so far as trying to turn the academic staff association of the university into a union, in order to negotiate for benefits. The courts denied this bid, but many of her demands for equal benefits were later met. In addition to her work at the University of Nairobi, Maathai became involved in a number of civic organizations in the early 1970s. She was a member of the Nairobi branch of the Kenya Red Cross Society, becoming its Director in 1973. She was a member of the Kenya Association of University Women. Following the establishment of the Environment Liaison Centre in 1974, Maathai was asked to be a member of the local board, eventually becoming board chair. The Environment Liaison Centre worked to promote the participation of non-governmental organizations in the work of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), whose headquarters was established in Nairobi following the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972. Maathai also joined the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work at these various volunteer associations, it became evident to Maathai that the root of most of Kenya's problems was environmental degradation.
Maathai and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, separated in 1977. After a lengthy separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her". In addition to naming her as "cruel" in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi's favor. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt. The interview later led the judge to charge Maathai with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang'ata Women's Prison in Nairobi, her Lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his Lawyer demanding that Maathai drop his surname. She chose to add an extra "a" instead.
In 1979, shortly after the divorce, Maathai ran for the position of chairperson of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK), an umbrella organization consisting of many women's organizations in the country. The newly elected President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, tried to limit the amount of influence those of the Kikuyu ethnicity held in the country, including in volunteer civic organizations such as the NCWK. She lost this election by three votes, but was overwhelmingly chosen to be the vice-chairman of the organization. The following year, Maathai again ran for chairman of the NCWK. Again she was opposed, she believes, by the government. When it became apparent that Maathai was going to win the election, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake, a member organization which represented a majority of Kenya's rural women and whose leader was close to Arap Moi, withdrew from the NCWK. Maathai was then elected chairman of the NCWK unopposed. However, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake came to receive a majority of the financial support for women's programs in the country, and NCWK was left virtually bankrupt. Future funding was much more difficult to come by, but the NCWK survived by increasing its focus on the environment and making its presence and work known. Maathai continued to be reelected to serve as chairman of the organization every year until she retired from the position in 1987.
In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party regime opposed many of the movement's positions regarding democratic rights. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people from meeting without a government license. In 1988, the Green Belt Movement carried out pro-democracy activities such as registering voters for the election and pressing for constitutional reform and freedom of expression. The government carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power, according to Maathai.
In 1982, the Parliamentary seat representing her home region of Nyeri was open, and Maathai decided to campaign for the seat. As required by law, she resigned her position with the University of Nairobi to campaign for office. The courts decided that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not re-registered to vote in the last presidential election in 1979. Maathai believed this to be false and illegal, and brought the matter to court. The court was to meet at nine in the morning, and if she received a favorable ruling, was required to present her candidacy papers in Nyeri by three in the afternoon that day. The judge disqualified her from running on a technicality. When she requested her job back, she was denied. As she lived in university housing and was no longer a staff member, she was evicted.
The divorce had been costly, and with lawyers' fees and the loss of her husband's income, Maathai found it difficult to provide for herself and her children on her university wages. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. As this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia, she was unable to bring her children with her. Maathai chose to send them to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, they lived with their Father until 1985.
The UN held the third global women's conference in Nairobi. During the conference, Maathai arranged seminars and presentations to describe the work the Green Belt Movement was doing in Kenya. She escorted delegates to see nurseries and plant trees. She met Peggy Snyder, the head of UNIFEM, and Helvi Sipilä, the first woman appointed a UN assistant secretary general. The conference helped to expand funding for the Green Belt Movement and led to the movement's establishing itself outside Kenya. In 1986, with funding from UNEP, the movement expanded throughout Africa and led to the foundation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network. Forty-five representatives from fifteen African countries travelled to Kenya over the next three years to learn how to set up similar programs in their own countries to combat desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger. The attention the movement received in the media led to Maathai's being honored with numerous awards. The government of Kenya, however, demanded that the Green Belt Movement separate from the NCWK, believing the latter should focus solely on women's issues, not the environment. Therefore, in 1987, Maathai stepped down as chairman of the NCWK and focused on the newly separate non-governmental organization.
Despite Maathai's protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, the ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on 15 November 1989. Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on 11 December. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President Daniel Arap Moi stated that those who opposed the project had "insects in their heads". On 12 December, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President Moi suggested Maathai be a proper woman in the African tradition and respect men and be quiet. She was forced by the government to vacate her office, and the Green Belt Movement was moved into her home. The government then audited the Green Belt Movement in an apparent attempt to shut it down. Despite all this, her protests, the government's response – and the media coverage it garnered – led foreign Investors to cancel the project in January 1990.
During this time, Maathai was recognized with various awards internationally, but the Kenyan government did not appreciate her work. In 1991 she received the Goldman Environmental Prize in San Francisco and the Hunger Project's Africa Prize for Leadership in London. CNN aired a three-minute segment about the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment was cut out. In June 1992, during the long protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi travelled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The Kenyan government accused Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. Despite this, Maathai was chosen to be a chief spokesperson at the summit.
During the first multi-party election of Kenya, in 1992, Maathai strove to unite the opposition and for fair elections in Kenya. The Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD) had fractured into FORD-Kenya (led by Oginga Odinga) and FORD-Asili (led by Kenneth Matiba); former vice President Mwai Kibaki had left the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, and formed the Democratic Party. Maathai and many others believed such a fractured opposition would lead to KANU's retaining control of the country, so they formed the Middle Ground Group in an effort to unite the opposition. Maathai was chosen to serve as its chairperson. Also during the election, Maathai and like-minded opposition members formed the Movement for Free and Fair Elections. Despite their efforts, the opposition did not unite, and the ruling KANU party used intimidation and state-held media to win the election, retaining control of parliament.
The following year, ethnic clashes occurred throughout Kenya. Maathai believed they were incited by the government, who had warned of stark consequences to multi-party democracy. Maathai travelled with friends and the press to areas of violence in order to encourage them to cease fighting. With the Green Belt Movement she planted "trees of peace", but before long her actions were opposed by the government. The conflict areas were labeled as "no go zones", and in February 1993 the President claimed that Maathai had masterminded a distribution of leaflets inciting Kikuyus to attack Kalenjins. After her friend and supporter Dr. Makanga was kidnapped, Maathai chose to go into hiding. While in hiding, Maathai was invited to a meeting in Tokyo of the Green Cross International, an environmental organization recently founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. When Maathai responded that she could not attend as she did not believe the government would allow her to leave the country and she was in hiding, Gorbachev pressured the government of Kenya to allow her to travel freely. President arap Moi denied limiting her travel, and she was allowed to leave the country, although too late for the meeting in Tokyo. Maathai was again recognized internationally, and she flew to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal in April 1993. In May she went to Chicago to receive the Jane Addams International Women's Leadership Award, and in June she attended the UN's World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna.
During the elections of 1997, Maathai again wished to unite the opposition in order to defeat the ruling party. In November, less than two months before the election, she decided to run for parliament and for President as a candidate of the Liberal Party. Her intentions were widely questioned in the press; many believed she should simply stick to running the Green Belt Movement and stay out of politics. On the day of the election, a rumour that Maathai had withdrawn from the election and endorsed another candidate was printed in the media. Maathai garnered few votes and lost the election.
In the summer of 1998, Maathai learned of a government plan to privatize large areas of public land in the Karura Forest, just outside Nairobi, and give it to political supporters. Maathai protested this through letters to the government and the press. She went with the Green Belt Movement to Karura Forest, planting trees and protesting the destruction of the forest. On 8 January 1999, a group of protesters including Maathai, six opposition MPs, journalists, international observers, and Green Belt members and supporters returned to the forest to plant a tree in protest. The entry to the forest was guarded by a large group of men. When she tried to plant a tree in an area that had been designated to be cleared for a golf course, the group was attacked. Many of the protesters were injured, including Maathai, four MPs, some of the journalists, and German environmentalists. When she reported the attack to the police, they refused to return with her to the forest to arrest her attackers. However, the attack had been filmed by Maathai's supporters, and the event provoked international outrage. Student protests broke out throughout Nairobi, and some of these groups were violently broken up by the police. Protests continued until 16 August 1999, when the President announced that he was banning all allocation of public land.
In 2001, the government again planned to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. While protesting this and collecting petition signatures on 7 March 2001, in Wang'uru village near Mount Kenya, Maathai was again arrested. The following day, following international and popular protest at her arrest, she was released without being charged. On 7 July 2001, shortly after planting trees at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park in Nairobi to commemorate Saba Saba Day, Maathai was again arrested. Later that evening, she was again released without being charged. In January 2002, Maathai returned to teaching as the Dorothy McCluskey Visiting Fellow for Conservation at the Yale University's School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She remained there until June 2002, teaching a course on sustainable development focused on the work of the Green Belt Movement.
Upon her return to Kenya, Maathai again campaigned for parliament in the 2002 elections, this time as a candidate of the National Rainbow Coalition, the umbrella organization which finally united the opposition. On 27 December 2002, the Rainbow Coalition defeated the ruling party Kenya African National Union, and in Tetu Constituency Maathai won with an overwhelming 98% of the vote. In January 2003, she was appointed Assistant Minister in the Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources and served in that capacity until November 2005. She founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya in 2003 to allow candidates to run on a platform of conservation as embodied by the Green Belt Movement. It is a member of the Federation of Green Parties of Africa and the Global Greens.
In a 2004 interview with Time, in response to questions concerning that report, Maathai replied, "I have no idea who created AIDS and whether it is a biological agent or not. But I do know things like that don't come from the moon. I have always thought that it is important to tell people the truth, but I guess there is some truth that must not be too exposed," and when asked what she meant, she continued, "I'm referring to AIDS. I am sure people know where it came from. And I'm quite sure it did not come from the monkeys." In response she issued the following statement:
On 28 March 2005, Maathai was elected the first President of the African Union's Economic, Social and Cultural Council and was appointed a goodwill ambassador for an initiative aimed at protecting the Congo Basin Forest Ecosystem. In 2006, she was one of the eight flag-bearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. Also on 21 May 2006, she was awarded an honorary doctorate by and gave the commencement address at Connecticut College. She supported the International Year of Deserts and Desertification program. In November 2006, she spearheaded the United Nations Billion Tree Campaign. Maathai was one of the founders of the Nobel Women's Initiative along with sister Nobel Peace laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. Six women representing North America and South America, Europe, the Middle East and Africa decided to bring together their experiences in a united effort for peace with justice and equality. It is the goal of the Nobel Women's Initiative to help strengthen work being done in support of women's rights around the world.
In August 2006, then United States Senator Barack Obama traveled to Kenya. His Father was educated in America through the same program as Maathai. She and the Senator met and planted a tree together in Uhuru Park in Nairobi. Obama called for freedom of the press to be respected, saying, "Press freedom is like tending a garden; it continually has to be nurtured and cultivated. The citizenry has to value it because it's one of those things that can slip away if we're not vigilant." He deplored global ecological losses, singling out President George W. Bush's refusal to join the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and its subsidiary, the Kyoto Protocol.
Maathai was defeated in the Party of National Unity's primary elections for its parliamentary candidates in November 2007 and chose to instead run as the candidate of a smaller party. She was defeated in the December 2007 parliamentary election. She called for a recount of votes in the presidential election (officially won by Mwai Kibaki, but disputed by the opposition) in her constituency, saying that both sides should feel the outcome was fair and that there were indications of fraud.
In June 2009, Maathai was named as one of PeaceByPeace.com's first peace heroes. Until her death in 2011, Maathai served on the Eminent Advisory Board of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA).
In her 2010 book, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World, she discussed the impact of the Green Belt Movement, explaining that the group's civic and environmental seminars stressed "the importance of communities taking responsibility for their actions and mobilizing to address their local needs," and adding, "We all need to work hard to make a difference in our neighborhoods, regions, and countries, and in the world as a whole. That means making sure we work hard, collaborate with each other, and make ourselves better agents to change."
Wangari Maathai died on 25 September 2011 of complications arising from ovarian cancer while receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital.
In 2012, Wangari Gardens opened in Washington, DC. Wangari Gardens is 2.7 acre community garden project for local residents which consists of over 55 garden allotments. This community garden honours the legacy of Wangari Maathai and her mission for community engagement and environmental protection. The Wangari Gardens consist of a community garden, youth garden, outdoor classroom, pollinator hive and public fruit tree orchard, vegetable garden, herb garden, berry garden and strawberry patch. Within the garden complex there are personal garden plots and public gardens. The personal plots are available to residents living within 1.5 miles of the community garden. Personal plot holders are required to contribute 1 hour monthly to the maintenance of the public gardens. The public gardens and orchard are maintained by plot holders and volunteers, and are open to everyone to enjoy and harvest. The Wangari Gardens has no direct affiliation with the Green Belt Movement or the Wangari Maathai Foundation but was inspired by Wangari Maathai and her work and passion for the environment.
On 25 September 2013, the Wangari Maathai Trees and Garden was dedicated on the lawn of the University of Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning. The memorial includes two red maples symbolizing Maathai's "commitment to the environment, her founding of the Green Belt Movement, and her roots in Kenya and in Pittsburgh" and a flower garden planted in a circular shape that representing her "global vision and dedication to the women and children of the world" with an ornamental maple tree in the middle signifying "how one small seed can change the world".
In 2014, at what would have been her 50-year reunion, her Mount St. Scholastica classmates and Benedictine College unveiled a statue of the Nobel laureate at her alma mater's Atchison, Kansas campus.
In October 2016, Forest Road in Nairobi was renamed to Wangari Maathai Road for her efforts to oppose several attempts to degrade forests and public parks through the Green Belt Movement.
The 2017 award was presented at the 4th Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Bonn, Germany, 19–20 December 2017 to Maria Margarida Ribeiro da Silva. Maria Margarida Ribeiro da Silva, a Brazilian forestry Activist, was awarded the Wangari Maathai Forest Champion Award for her achievements in promoting community forest management and improving the quality of life for many Amazonian communities. In addition to being awarded the 2017 Wangari Maathai Forest Champion Award, Ribiero da Silva also received a cash prize of $20,000 USD.