Wangari Maathai

Four picture books showing African women

Buy all of these books for your school library if you can.

Each tell the story of the incredible Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman whose work as an environmentalist was recognised with a Noble Peace Prize. Encouraging women to plant seeds to replace trees being cut down to make way for plantations and new developments her goal was simple but her work was fraught with danger. Standing in the way of wealthy business interests and a corrupt and brutal government she was beaten and imprisoned.

How did she keep strong and keep fighting for what was right?

First watch this video with your students:

“I maybe insignificant but I certainly don’t want to be like the big animals, watching the planet go down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

Book cover showing an African woman and colourful trees

Wangari Maathai: The Woman who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prèvot and Illustrated by Aurèlia Fronty

This is my top pick because it contains so much information about her. It starts with the fact that Wangari could speak four languages. The first clue that we are dealing with a very intelligent person. The second is her name. Wa-ngari means ‘she who belongs to the leopard’ and we might pause here and think about our own names and destinies.

Wangari’s brother is given credit for encouraging her family to let her go to school. As a girl, she is expected to help her mother: gathering wood; cooking; looking after the younger children and animals. But when given the opportunity to learn she seizes it and is one of 600 young Kenyan’s to take advantage of a US scholarship offered by Senator John. F Kennedy.

African tree with birds and people

“Her mother teaches her that a tree is worth more than its wood, an expression that Wangari never forgets.”

When Wangari returns to Kenya there is a new future for the country. Kenya has achieved independence but economic progress comes at an environmental price as trees are cut down to cultivate more tea, coffee and tobacco and the timber.

African woman carrying bundles of sticks

“Wild animals are rare now – the have fled the chain saws.”

In 1977, Wangari creates the Green Belt Movement and travels from village to village to speak about the importance of trees. She has to raise money so she can buy the seeds to replace hundreds of thousands of trees. Her actions empower women who benefit from a small payment for planting the seeds and growing the trees. But the more successful she becomes the more she attracts attention.Four African women and a baby

“Who is this woman who confronts them with a confident voice in a country where women are supposed to listen and lower their eyes in men’s presence?”

Wangari takes on the president, Daniel arap Moi, who wants to build a sixty-story building and a statue of himself in the centre of Uhuru Park. Wangari protests and the project is stopped. But, she is beaten and imprisoned several times. She receives death threats and is often forced into hiding but she continues her work and creates an environmental party and tries to bring democracy to Kenya.

Green protests fighting the bulldozers

“You are the only man left standing”.

Wangari continued her work and encouraged tribes to exchange gifts of trees in symbolic gestures of peace. When Moi’s government finally fell in 2002 she became a Member of Parliament and assistant minister for the environment, natural resources and wildlife. In 2004 she became the first African woman to win the Noble Peace Prize. This book includes a timeline and it will inspire lots of research about Kenya, colonialism, human rights, politics as well as the environment, endangered species and fighting for the planet.

Timeline of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai planting seeds in KenyaWangari’s Trees of Peace: A True Story for Africa by Jeanette Winter

Grade 2 and I had such an interesting discussion after reading this book together. It is the simplest, or should I say, the shortest, out of the four and at first I could see they weren’t too engaged because, I think, they did not think planting trees was that interesting. What was the big deal?

Then we reached the part were the government men laughed at the women.

‘But why are they laughing’ asked one boy. It was hard to explain.


African woman is threatened with axe

The children cannot believe a person can be jailed for planting trees!

How do I explain that this is not just about trees? It is about power and greed.

Black woman in jail and being beaten

The children are captivated. They all agree she is brave. Even the most outspoken children don’t think they would risk jail for doing what they believe is right. We talk about the Noble Peace Prize. We discuss how people like Wangari are very few but how the world needs more people like her.

Book Cover African woman planting seedsSeeds of Change by Jen Cullerton Johnson and Illustrated by Sonia Lynn Sadler

This would be a great book to use for the power of education, women’s rights as well as campaigning for the environment. Johnson’s version of Wangari’s story emphasises her access to education in a time when it was not expected that girls would go to school.

The book picks out her move to Nairobi and how sad and scared Wangari was to leave home. From those studies she won a scholarship to the USA and studied biology.
women studying science

When she returned to Kenya to take a teaching position at the University of Nairobi she found that the government had sold more and more land for timber and coffee plantations. The birds had gone, the monkeys had gone and women had to walk miles and miles for firewood.

Wangari started The Green Belt Movement and the difference was felt by the families who had more to eat and the big, foreign companies who did not want to be challenged by a woman trying to stop their destruction and greed. Johnson does not dwell on Wangari’s time in prison or write about her being beaten and threatened. There is no mention of Daniel arap Moi’s government or the strength and bravery she needed to fight for the trees and for democracy. I feel this lets the book down somewhat.

Mama Miti Mother of Trees

However, Sonia Lynn Sadler’s illustration are bright and full of hope and embraces, I think, the spirit of Wangari and indeed the gifts of change and hope she has given not only Kenya but also to women and the world.

African woman planting seedsMama Witi by Donna Jo Napoli and
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

This book does not include any information on Wangari’s childhood or education but what it does, very beautifully indeed, is show how change starts with one person.

One day, a poor woman went to see the ‘wise Wangari’. She told her that she no longer had a job at the timber mill and could not feed her family. Wangari gave her seeds to grow mubiru muiru trees. She was able to eat the fruit and plant more seeds. Another woman came and told Wangari she and her daughter walked miles each day to collect firewood. Wangari’s advice was to plant seeds. Trees began to grow again and villagers reaped the benefits.



Illustrations of African people and animals

The message is simple. We need trees.

No trees? No food. No shelter. No protection. No clean water. No clean air. No animals.

The message is gentle. Plant seeds and reap the harvest.

Fabric illustration of African woman planting seeds

Only in the Afterword is there any mention of her courage and time in prison. In fact it says that she was only freed due to an Amnesty International  letter-writing campaign. A fact that I think I would like to emphasise and again encourage students to do something – even writing a letter can change things for the better.

Kadir Nelson’s illustrations are amazing and there is a note from him describing the technique he used: oil paints and printed fabrics on gessoed board. They really enrich the whole book and bring the people and their stories to life.

Proud educated African woman



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