Maathai's parents taught her to respect the soil and its bounty, and to love planting trees, she says. The daughter of subsistence farmers, she was born in the green, clean central highlands in the foothills of towering Mount Kenya. Maathai's oldest brother convinced their parents to send her to school when she was 7, unusual in a culture that didn't value educating women. She excelled and, in 1960, earned a scholarship to study in the United States. At Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, Maathai, known to her classmates as Mary Jo, was delighted by the novelty of falling leaves and snowstorms. Returning to Kenya, she became a professor of veterinary anatomy and the first woman at the University of Nairobi to chair a department. She also married Mwangi Mathai, who was a member of parliament, and had three children.
Maathai was shocked at the way her homeland had changed during her years away. The stream where she'd drawn drinking water had dried up. The forests where she'd gathered firewood had been razed for timber, cleared for commercial farming, or replaced by fast-growing exotic trees that sucked nutrients from the soil. Rich land was turning to desert.
"I listened to women saying that deforestation was forcing them to walk farther and farther to find firewood for cooking, that they couldn't grow enough on depleted soil to feed their families, that they had no money to buy food," she says. Trees, she thought, might solve all three problems. With support from the National Council of Women in Kenya, small groups of women gathered seeds and planted them. "Eventually, the movement became so powerful that the government saw the need to ban it," Maathai says with a laugh.
That happened after the GBM began advocating democracy and fighting corruption. Throughout the 1990s, Maathai was arrested again and again for opposing Moi; at times she had to wear disguises and sleep in safe houses. When she was (legally) planting trees to replace a forest being (illegally) cut and replaced by luxury housing, security guards whipped her on the head. She signed the police report in her own blood. While she was holding vigil with mothers protesting the imprisonment of their sons—prodemocracy activists—riot police clubbed Maathai unconscious, and she woke up in a hospital. She spent International Women's Day 2001 in jail for challenging the government's wrongdoings.
Since Moi's party's defeat in free elections in 2002, Maathai herself has entered Kenya's government. She now serves as assistant minister for environment and natural resources—and shows no signs of slowing down her activism. The GBM has taken on AIDS education, for example, especially dispelling myths and teaching women to protect themselves; Maathai is also working to save the threatened rainforest of the Congo basin—"one of the world's lungs," she calls it.
"People often ask what drives me," she says to me. "Perhaps the more difficult question would be: What would it take to stop me? I'm driven by opportunities to confront the problems before my eyes."
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