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|Born||April 1, 1940
Ihithe village, Tetu division, Nyeri District, Kenya
M.S. Biological Sciences,
Ph.D. Veterinary Anatomy
|Occupation||Environmentalist, Political activist|
Wangari Muta Maathai (born April 1, 1940 in Ihithe village, Tetu division, Nyeri District of Kenya) is a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica College and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya. In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 2004 she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for –her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.– Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005.
Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of British controlled Kenya on April 1, 1940. Her family was of the Kikuyu ethnic group, 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 the age of 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, taking the Christian name Mary Josephine. She also was involved with the Christian society known as the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted "to serve God by serving fellow human beings." Studying at St. Cecilia's, Maathai 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 Girls' High School in Limuru.
After graduating from Loreto-Limuru in 1959, she planned to attend the University of East Africa in Kampala, Uganda. However, the end of the colonial period of East Africa was nearing, and 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 about three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities in September 1960.
Maathai received a scholarship to study at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College), in Atchison, Kansas. At Mount St. Scholastica, she majored in biology, with minors in chemistry and German. After receiving her bachelor of science degree in 1964, she was accepted to the University of Pittsburgh to study for a master's degree in biology. Her graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh were funded by the Africa-America Institute. During her studies in Pittsburgh, Maathai first experienced environmental restoration, as environmentalists in the city pushed to rid the city of air pollution. In January 1966, Maathai completed her studies at the University of Pittsburgh, earning a Master of Science in Biological Sciences, and was appointed to a position as research assistant to a professor of zoology at University College of Nairobi.
Upon her return to Kenya, Maathai dropped her Christian name, preferring to be known by her birth name, Wangari Muta. When she arrived at the University of Nairobi for her new job as a research assistant to the professor of zoology, she was informed that her job had been given to someone else. Maathai believes this was because of gender and tribal bias. After a job search lasting two months, 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 Mathai, 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 her studies at the University College of Nairobi as an assistant lecturer. In May, she and Mwangi Mathai were 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 afterward, her first son, Waweru, was born.
In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to receive a Ph.D., when she was granted a Doctorate of 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. She continued to teach at the university, becoming a senior lecturer in Anatomy in 1974, chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy in 1976 and associate professor in 1977. She was the first woman appointed to any of these positions in Nairobi. During this time, she campaigned for equal benefits for the women working on the staff of the university, going so far as to attempt 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 the chair of the board. 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.
In 1974, Maathai's family expanded to include her third child, Muta. Her husband again campaigned for a seat in Parliament, hoping to represent the Lang'ata constituency, and won. During the course of 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 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.
In 1977, Maathai spoke to the NCWK concerning her attendance at Habitat I. She proposed further tree planting, which the council supported, and led to Save the Land Harambee. On June 5, 1977, marking World Environment Day, the NCWK marched in a procession from Kenyatta International Conference Centre in downtown Nairobi to Kamukunji park on the outskirts of the city where they planted seven trees in honor of historical community leaders. This was the first "Green Belt" planted by what became the Green Belt Movement. Maathai encouraged the women of Kenya to plant tree nurseries throughout the country, searching nearby forests for seeds to grow trees native to the area. She agreed to pay the women a small stipend for each seedling which was later planted elsewhere.
In 1977 her husband, Mwangi Mathai, left her. After a lengthy separation, in 1979 he sued for divorce, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman and that he was unable to control her. He publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, causing his high blood pressure, and being cruel. The judge in the divorce case agreed with the husband. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt. The interview angered the judge, and she was charged with contempt of court, 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. In defiance, she chose to add an extra "a" instead.
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 alone. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. However, this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia. She was unable to bring her three children with her. Maathai chose to send her children to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, the children lived with their father until 1985.
In 1979, shortly after the divorce, Maathai ran for the position of chairman of the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). The NCWK was an umbrella organization consisting of many different women's organizations in the country. The new President of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi, was attempting 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 President 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 their presence and work known. Maathai continued to be elected to serve as chairman of the organization every year until she retired from the position in 1987.
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. However, the courts decided that she was ineligible to run for office because she had not reregistered 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 same day. The judge disqualified her from running on a technicality. When she requested her job back, she was denied. She believes this was because President arap Moi, who seemed so against her, was also the Chancellor of the University of Nairobi. As she lived in university housing and was no longer a member of staff, she was evicted from her home.
Maathai moved into a small home she had purchased years before, and focused on the NCWK while she searched for employment. In the course of her work through the NCWK, she was approached by Wilhelm Elsrud, executive director of the Norwegian Forestry Society. He wished to partner with the Green Belt Movement and offered her the position of coordinator. Employed again, Maathai poured her efforts into the Green Belt Movement. Along with the partnership for the Norwegian Forestry Society, the movement had also received "seed money" from the United Nations Voluntary Fund for Women. These funds allowed for the expansion of the movement, for hiring additional employees to oversee the operations, and for continuing to pay a small stipend to the women who planted seedlings throughout the country. It also allowed her to refine the operations of the movement, paying a small stipend to the women's husbands and sons who were literate and able to keep accurate records of seedlings planted.
In 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 Sipil, 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 of 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 traveled 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 her attention on the newly separate nongovernmental organization.
In the latter half of the 1980s, the Kenyan government came down against Maathai and the Green Belt Movement. The single-party democracy was against many of the stances the movement taught pertaining to rights and democracy. The government invoked a colonial-era law prohibiting groups of more than nine people to meet without first obtaining 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, however, was not interested in reform and carried out electoral fraud in the elections to maintain power.
In October 1989, Maathai learned of a plan to construct the 60-story Kenya Times Media Trust Complex in Uhuru Park. The complex was intended to house the headquarters of KANU, the Kenya Times newspaper, a trading center, offices, an auditorium, galleries, shopping malls, and parking space for two thousand cars. The plan also included a large statue of President arap Moi. She wrote many letters in protest: the Kenya Times, the Office of the President, the Nairobi city commission, the provincial commissioner, the minister for environment and natural resources, the executive directors of UNEP and the Environment Liaison Centre International, the executive director of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the ministry of public works, and the permanent secretary in the department of international security and administration all received letters. She also wrote to Sir John Johnson, the British high commissioner in Nairobi, urging him to intervene with Robert Maxwell, a major shareholder in the project, equating the construction of a tower in Uhuru Park to such construction in Hyde Park or Central Park and maintaining that it could not be tolerated.
When I see Uhuru Park and contemplate its meaning, I feel compelled to fight for it so that my grandchildren may share that dream and that joy of freedom as they one day walk there.
The government refused to respond to her inquiries and protests, instead responding through the media that Maathai was "a crazy woman", denying the project in Uhuru Park would take more than a small portion of public park land, and proclaiming the project as a "fine and magnificent work of architecture" opposed by only the "ignorant few." On November 8, 1989, Parliament expressed outrage at Maathai's actions, complaining of her letters to foreign organizations and calling the Green Belt Movement a bogus organization and its members "a bunch of divorcees". They suggested that if Maathai was so comfortable writing to Europeans, perhaps she should go live in Europe.
Despite Maathai's protests, as well as popular protest growing throughout the city, ground was broken at Uhuru Park for construction of the complex on November 15, 1989. Maathai sought an injunction in the Kenya High Court to halt construction, but the case was thrown out on December 11. In his first public comments pertaining to the project, President arap Moi said those who opposed the project had "insects in their heads." On December 12, in Uhuru Park, during a speech celebrating independence from the British, President arap 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.
In January 1992, it came to the attention of Maathai and other pro-democracy activists that a list of individuals were targeted for assassination and that a government-sponsored coup was possible. Maathai's name was on the list of individuals targeted for assassination. The pro-democracy group, known as the Forum for the Restoration of Democracy (FORD), presented its information to the media, calling for a general election. Later that day, she received a warning that one of their members had been arrested. Maathai decided to barricade herself in her home. Shortly after, police arrived and surrounded the house. She was besieged in her own home for three days before police cut through the bars she had installed on her windows, came in, and arrested her. Maathai and the other pro-democracy activists who had been arrested were charged with spreading malicious rumors, sedition, and treason. After a day and a half in jail, they were brought to a hearing and released on bail. A wide variety of international organizations and eight senators (including Al Gore and Edward M. Kennedy) put pressure on the government of Kenya to substantiate the charges against the pro-democracy activists or risk damaging relations with the United States. In November 1992, the government of Kenya dropped the charges.
On February 28, 1992, while released on bail, Maathai and others took part in a hunger strike in a corner of Uruhu Park, which they labeled Freedom Corner, to pressure the government to release political prisoners. After four days of the hunger strike, on March 3, 1992, the police forcibly removed the protestors. Maathai and three others were knocked unconscious by police and hospitalized. President Daniel arap Moi called her "a mad woman" who is "a threat to the order and security of the country". The attack drew international criticism. The US State Department said it was "deeply concerned" by the violence and by the forcible removal of the hunger strikers. When the political prisoners were not released, the protestors, mostly mothers of those in prison, moved their protest to All Saints Cathedral, the seat of the Anglican Archbishop in Kenya, across from Uhuru Park. The protest there continued, with Maathai contributing frequently, until early 1993, when the prisoners were finally released.
During this time, Maathai was being recognized with various awards internationally, but the government of Kenya 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 concerning the Goldman prize, but when it aired in Kenya, that segment had been edited out. In June 1992, during the lengthy protest at Uhuru Park, both Maathai and President arap Moi traveled to Rio de Janeiro for the UN Conference on Environment and Development (Earth Summit). The government of Kenya accused Maathai of inciting women and encouraging them to strip at Freedom Corner, urging that she not be allowed to speak at the summit. In spite of 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 promote free and 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);Mwai Kibaki, the former vice president, 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 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 tribal clashes occurred throughout Kenya. Maathai believed they were incited by the government, who had warned of stark consequences to multi-party democracy. Maathai traveled 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 traveled to Scotland to receive the Edinburgh Medal in April 1993. In May she traveled 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 that she would 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 rumor 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 against the privatization 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 January 8, 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 August 16, 1999, when the president announced that he was banning all allocation of public land.
In 2001, the government was again planning to take public forest land and give it to its supporters. While protesting the land-grab and collecting petition signatures on March 7, 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 July 7, 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 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 December 27, 2002, the Rainbow Coalition defeated the ruling party Kenya African National Union, and in her 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.
On October 8, 2004, Maathai received a cell phone call from the Norwegian ambassador to Kenya, telling her to keep the line open for a call from Oslo. Shortly afterward Maathai received a call from Ole Danbolt Mjos, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He informed her that she was the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace. She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.
|–||Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression–nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.||–|
–The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Controversy arose after the announcement of the Nobel award when it was reported by The Standard that Maathai had claimed HIV/AIDS was "deliberately created by Western scientists to decimate the African population." Maathai denied making the allegations, but The Standard has stood by its reports.
In a 2004 interview with Time Magazine, 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:
|–||I have warned people against false beliefs and misinformation such as attributing this disease to a curse from God or believing that sleeping with a virgin cures the infection. These prevalent beliefs in my region have led to an upsurge in rape and violence against children. It is within this context, also complicated by the cultural and religious perspective, that I often speak. I have therefore been shocked by the ongoing debate generated by what I am purported to have said. It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive.||–|
On March 28, 2005, she 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 flagbearers at the 2006 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony. Also on May 21, 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 Menchu 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 on a much-publicized visit. His father was educated in America through the same program as Maathai, and the two 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, however, defeated in the December 2007 parliamentary election. She subsequently 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.
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