Wangarĩ Maathai

On April 1, 1940, in Ihithe, a small community in the Nyeri District of Kenya, a baby girl was born into the Muta family; her parents named her Wangarĩ Miriam.  Her name, “Wa-ngari” means, “She who belongs to the leopard”.  The “ngari”, or leopard, is one of many entities, including the bongo antelope, butterflies and the mugumo trees, that reside in the immense forest near her family’s home.  The Muta family, who are of the Kikuyu people, also live near Mount Kenya, a volcano that the Kikuyu consider sacred.

Wangarĩ would be the eldest girl of six children and as such, she was reared to be the second lady of the house.  With her mother, she completed tasks, including sewing, cooking, and tending to her younger siblings, traditionally reserved for females.  Daughters are to assist their mothers in learning the ways of womanhood because it is strongly promoted that daughters will, one day, be wives and mothers.  Wangarĩ Muta began to master these tasks in the home and the field.  However, it is in the garden, where Wangarĩ learns to plant, that her mother instills in her the immense value of a tree.  This lesson would remain significant to Wangarĩ throughout her life.

Because Kenya was still under tyrannical, colonial control of Britain at that time, her father labored as a farmer.  The British imposed their way of living, including forcing of Eurocentric values and Christianity, on the Kikuyu, the most populous nation of people in Kenya.  Because of this imposition, Wangarĩ is called “Miriam” during her early childhood.  In 1943, the Muta family relocated to Nakuru, where he worked as a chauffeur for the Neylan family, who were White, British colonists.  Four years later, the Mutas returned to Ihithe.

Shortly after their return to their home community, her older brother, Nederitu questioned why Wangarĩ did not attend school like him and their brothers.  Several days later, their mother enrolled Wangarĩ at Ihithe Primary School to receive an education.  This would be the first step on Wangarĩ Muta’s journey in formal learning.

For greater enlightenment...

The Little Hummingbird by Michael Nicol Yahgulanaas with the Afterword by Wangarĩ Maathai

Seeds of Change: Wangarĩ’s Gift to the World by Jen Cullerton Johnson

Wangarĩ Maathai: Voices of Liberation by Grace Musila