Two red maples and a garden brimming with zinnias quietly grow in the shadow of the Cathedral of Learning, a tribute to a humble yet charismatic African woman who passed through Pittsburgh 50 years ago.
Wangari Maathai came from Kenya in 1965 to earn her master’s degree in biology from University of Pittsburgh, the beginning of a celebrated career that included a Nobel Peace in 2004. From Pitt, Maathai went on to spend several years studying abroad.
When she returned to her native country, she found it nearly decimated by a deforested landscape that threatened the local farming ecology and economy. Maathai started a simple tree-planting project in response, a project that came to be known as the Green Belt Movement. The movement was instrumental in planting more than 51 million trees in Kenya and across Africa, helping to restore indigenous forests while assisting rural woman by paying them to plant trees in their villages.
Maathai campaigned loudly against deforestation and was even arrested and beaten by police at protests. She led hunger strikes. She addressed the United Nations about her concerns, eventually serving on the U.N.’s Commission for Global Governance and the Commission on the Future.
Not only was she the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, but she had a successful career as a writer and political leader, unheard of for an African woman at the time. She was an elected member of Parliament, an assistant minister for Environmental Natural Resources in Kenya and an honorary Councilor of the World Future Council.
Sadly, she died of complications from ovarian cancer in 2011.
A public dedication in her honor was held recently at the garden near the Fifth Avenue Entrance of the Cathedral of Learning, a fitting homage to a woman whose life was dedicated to sustainable development.
“Professor Maathai’s lifelong commitment to advocating for women, the poor, and the oppressed has had a truly global impact, bringing hope and opportunity for a better life to countless women,” said Mark A. Nordenberg, president of Pitt. “The garden will serve as an ongoing inspiration to generations of Pitt students to come, reminding them of the positive difference that one person, armed with an education and a dream, can make.”
Writer: Deb Smit
Source: University of Pittsburgh
Kenyan student Nicholas Wambua and Chancellor Nordenberg at the dedication of the garden. Image courtesy of Michael Drazdzinski/University of Pittsburgh