Wangari Maathai: A Woman Who Healed the World One Seed at a Time

One of my personal heros is Wangari Maathai. Born in Nyeri, a rural area of Kenya, in 1940, Wangari Muta Maathai led such an extraordinary life of service. I learned about Dr. Maathai and her work about ten years ago and I immediately felt connected to her. She was an African woman, a biologist, and an environmental conservationist doing work that she believed in and was passionate about; we had so much in common and I just felt a familiar kinship with her. 

Dr. Maathai studied in the United States, Germany and Kenya. She eventually returned to Kenya where she introduced the idea of planting trees as a way to help Kenyans improve their quality of life and to combat deforestation and its impact on the environment. She launched this grassroots movement, consisting mostly of women groups, and helped them plant trees on their farms, in schools and church compounds. And so the Greenbelt Movement was born. Founded in 1977, this movement has gone on to plant over 51 million trees all over Africa!

There are numerous books and websites that cite Dr. Maathai’s many accomplishments in great detail, so I won’t do that here. I will highlight that she was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree in the late 1970s. And in 2004, she became the first environmentalist and the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize for her work!

My main intention here is to highlight this phenomenal woman and introduce her to an audience who may not know much about her. Just take a moment to consider this – an African woman, born in a rural village in Kenya, accomplished all of the above in the 70s at a time when most girls and women in Africa did not have the opportunity, much less the right, to a formal education. Also consider that an African woman had the foresight and wisdom to not only recognize the impact of deforestation on our environment, back in the 70s when environmental conservation and caring about climate change was not the norm, but was in fact considered a threat to capitalism and commercialization. Then take in the fact that she not only recognized this, but acted upon it in a manner that empowered other women and improved their quality of life! A true hero indeed.

You can share the story of Wangari Maathai with your little ones through the following book recommendations. Also included in this list is her biography written in her own words. Enjoy!

-Bunmi Emenanjo


Wangari Maathai: The Woman Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prevot, Aurelia Fronty (Illustrator)

This simply told story begins with Green Belt Movement founder Wangari Maathai’s childhood at the foot of Mount Kenya where, as the oldest child in her family, her responsibility was to stay home and help her mother. When the chance to go to school presented itself, she seized it with both hands. In the 1960s, she was awarded the opportunity to travel to the US to study, where she saw that even in the land of the free, black people were not welcome.

Returning home, Wangari was determined to help her people and her country. She recognized that deforestation and urbanization was at the root of her country’s troubles. Her courage and confidence carried her through adversity to found a movement for peace, reconciliation, and healing. 

Aurélia Fronty’s beautiful illustrations show readers the color and diversity of Wangari’s Africa—the green trees and the flowering trees full of birds, monkeys, and other animals; the roots that dig deep into the earth; and the people who work and live on the land. Wangari Maathai changed the way the world thinks about nature, ecology, freedom, and democracy, inspiring radical efforts that continue to this day. (Charlesbridge)

Wangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story from Africa by Jeanette Winter

As a young girl growing up in Kenya, Wangari was surrounded by trees. But years later when she returns home, she is shocked to see whole forests being cut down, and she knows that soon all the trees will be destroyed. So Wangari decides to do something—and starts by planting nine seedlings in her own backyard. And as they grow, so do her plans . . .

This true story of Wangari Maathai, environmentalist and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, is a shining example of how one woman’s passion, vision, and determination inspired great change.(HMH Books)


Seeds of Change: Planting a Path to Peace by Jen Johnson, Sonia Sadler (Illustrator)

As a young girl in Kenya, Wangari was taught to respect nature. She grew up loving the land, plants, and animals that surrounded her—from the giant mugumo trees her people, the Kikuyu, revered to the tiny tadpoles that swam in the river. Although most Kenyan girls were not educated, Wangari, curious and hardworking, was allowed to go to school. There, her mind sprouted like a seed. She excelled at science and went on to study in the United States. After returning home, Wangari blazed a trail across Kenya, using her knowledge and compassion to promote the rights of her countrywomen and to help save the land, one tree at a time. (Lee and Low Books)

Mama Miti: Wangari Maathai and the Trees of Kenya by Donna Jo Napoli, Kadir Nelson (Illustrator)

Through artful prose and beautiful illustrations, Donna Jo Napoli and Kadir Nelson tell the true story of Wangari Muta Maathai, known as “Mama Miti,” who in 1977 founded the Green Belt Movement, an African grassroots organization that has empowered many people to mobilize and combat deforestation, soil erosion, and environmental degradation. Today more than 30 million trees have been planted throughout Mama Miti’s native Kenya, and in 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari Muta Maathai has changed Kenya tree by tree—and with each page turned, children will realize their own ability to positively impact the future. (Simon & Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books)


Dr. Wangari Maathai Plants a Forest by Rebel Girls, Eugenia Mello

Wangari lives in the lush, green, land of rural Kenya where the soil is perfect for planting, the trees tower into the sky, and the streams are full of mysterious creatures. All day, she plays beneath her favorite fig tree, and at night she gathers around the fire with her family to listen to her mother’s stories.

Then Wangari grows up and goes away to school, and things start changing at home. Farmers chop down the trees. Landslides bury the stream. The soil becomes overworked and dry, and nothing will grow. People go hungry. After all her studies, Dr. Wangari Maathai realizes there is a simple solution to these problems: plant a forest full of trees. (Timbuktu Labs)


Unbowed: A Memoir by Wangari Maathai

In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins with the Kenyan government and personal losses, and jailed and beaten on numerous occasions, Maathai continued to fight tirelessly to save Kenya’s forests and to restore democracy to her beloved country. Infused with her unique luminosity of spirit, Wangari Maathai’s remarkable story of courage, faith, and the power of persistence is destined to inspire generations to come. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group)