Born on April 1, 1940, in Kenya, Maathai grew up in a small village. Maathai's family decided to send her to school, which was uncommon for girls at this time. She started at primary school when she was 8 years old.
She won a scholarship in 1960 to go to college in the United States, where she earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1964. Two years later, she completed a master's degree in biological sciences. Maathai would later draw inspiration by the civil rights and anti‑ Vietnam War movements.
Returning to Kenya, she made history in 1971, becoming the first woman in East Africa to earn a doctorate degree. Maathai joined the University's faculty and became the first woman to chair a University department in the region in 1976.
Maathai sought to end the devastation of Kenya's forests caused by development. In 1977, she launched the Green Belt Movement to reforest her beloved country while helping the nation's women. "Women needed income and they needed resources because theirs were being depleted," Maathai explained to People magazine. "So we decided to solve both problems together." The movement is responsible for the planting of more than 30 million trees in Kenya and providing roughly 30,000 women with new skills and opportunities. An outspoken critic of dictator Daniel arap Moi, she was beaten and arrested numerous times. In 1989. Maathai staged a protest in Nairobi's Uhuru Park to preventing the construction of a skyscraper. Her campaign drew international attention. The place in the park where she demonstrated became known as "Freedom Corner." Maathai remained a vocal opponent of the government until Moi's political party lost control in 2002 and earned a seat in the country's parliament that same year, becoming assistant minister of environment, natural resources and wildlife. In 2004, Maathai was given the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." She died September 25, 2011, at the age of 71 years old.