International Women's Day: Nobel Laureate WANGARI MAATHAI: SHAKING THE TREE

Students think about women they admire, learn about African leader Maathai, and discuss the Peter Gabriel song Shaking the Tree.


Students will:


  • Talk about the women they admire in their lives and why
  • Be introduced to the idea of International Women's Day
  • Hear the story of Nobel Peace Laureate Wangari Maathai and read excerpts from her acceptance speech
  • Listen to and discuss Peter Gabriel's song "Shaking the Tree"


  • Agenda on chart paper or on the board
  • Handout I: The Story of Wangari Maathai
  • Handout II: lyrics of Peter Gabriel's song Shaking the Tree
  • Access to YouTube for video of Shaking the Tree - or download the audio from Amazon or other site in advance




(5 minutes)

In pairs, ask students to talk about a woman in their lives they admire and why. Ask a few volunteers to share with the full class.

Agenda and Introduction

(5 minutes)

In today's lesson we will take a look at an amazing woman who worked to empower the poor, rural women of her country to affect change in powerful ways.

Every March 8, people around the world celebrate International Women's Day. Hundreds of events occur on this day and throughout March to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women. In the US the month of March is designated as Women's History Month.

Ask your students why they think it's important to celebrate International Women's Day. Why is it important to have a Women's History Month?

The Tree Woman

(20 minutes)

Introduce students to Wangari Maathai, the first African woman and the first environmentalist ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Ask students what they know about the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Nobel Peace Prize, named after Swedish founder Alfred Nobel, is one of the most prestigious prizes in the world. In his will from 1895, Nobel instructed that most of his fortune be set aside for a fund to support the awarding of five annual prizes.

Peace was the fifth and final prize area that Nobel mentioned in his will. Nobel, a scientist and entrepreneur, was also the inventor of dynamite and other explosives. He might have developed a special interest in the peace movement because his inventions were used in warfare and assassination attempts.

Of the 121 Nobel Peace Prize winners, to date only 12 have been women. Wangari Maathai won the prize in 2004 for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace."

Ask students to read Handout 1. Then have students break into groups of three or four to discuss these questions:

1. What do you think of the actions of Wangari Maathai?

2. In 2004, when Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, critics questioned whether the prize should be awarded to an environmental activist. They were concerned that the prize's effectiveness in promoting peace, enhancing security and ending conflicts could be diluted. After reading Maathai's acceptance speech, what do you think about this argument?


Shaking the Tree

(15 minutes)

Play the song Shaking the Tree by Peter Gabriel (download in advance from Amazon or other source or watch the video at: Distribute the handout of Shaking the Tree lyrics so that students can follow the lyrics as you play the song.

Having played the song, ask students to look over the lyrics again and pick a stanza that stands out for them. In small groups of three or four, ask students to share their favorite stanza and explain why it stands out for them.

Ask a few volunteers to share in the large group. If no one brings it up, ask your class why they think the song is called "Shaking the Tree?" How does it connect to the work of Wangari Maathai?


(5 minutes)

On International Women's Day, think about a tree that you would like to see shaken to improve the lives of women and girls around the world.Ask a few volunteers to share.



The story of Wangari Maathai

In 1977, Wangari Maathai started a campaign that came to be known as the Green Belt Movement in her home country of Kenya. Addressing enormously complex challenges of deforestation and global climate change, the movement partnered with poor rural women who were encouraged, and paid a small stipend, to plant millions of trees to slow deforestation across Kenya. Besides the planting of trees the movement worked to preserve biodiversity, educate people about the environment and promote Women's and girl's rights.

In her Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech Wangari Maathai explained how environmental conservation could lead to peace. She drew many connections between the environment, good governance, human rights, women's rights, peace and conflict resolution:

"As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership.

In 1977, when we started the Green Belt Movement, I was partly responding to needs identified by rural women, namely lack of firewood, clean drinking water, balanced diets, shelter and income.

Throughout Africa, women are the primary caretakers, holding significant responsibility for tilling the land and feeding their families. As a result, they are often the first to become aware of environmental damage as resources become scarce and incapable of sustaining their families.

Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount time. This sustains interest and commitment.

So, together, we have planted over 30 million trees that provide fuel, food, shelter, and income to support their children's education and household needs. The activity also creates employment and improves soils and watersheds. Through their involvement, women gain some degree of power over their lives, especially their social and economic position and relevance in the family. This work continues.

In the process [of planting trees] the participants discover that they must be part of the solutions. They realize their hidden potential and are empowered to overcome inertia and take action. They come to recognize that they are the primary custodians and beneficiaries of the environment that sustains them.

Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.

Through the Green Belt Movement, thousands of ordinary citizens were mobilized and empowered to take action and effect change. They learned to overcome fear and a sense of helplessness and moved to defend democratic rights.

In time, the tree also became a symbol for peace and conflict resolution, especially during ethnic conflicts in Kenya when the Green Belt Movement used peace trees to reconcile disputing communities. During the ongoing re-writing of the Kenyan constitution, similar trees of peace were planted in many parts of the country to promote a culture of peace.

Using trees as a symbol of peace is in keeping with a widespread African tradition. For example, the elders of the Kikuyu carried a staff from the thigi tree that, when placed between two disputing sides, caused them to stop fighting and seek reconciliation. Many communities in Africa have these traditions.

Such practices are part of an extensive cultural heritage, which contributes both to the conservation of habitats and to cultures of peace. With the destruction of these cultures and the introduction of new values, local biodiversity is no longer valued or protected and as a result, it is quickly degraded and disappears. For this reason, The Green Belt Movement explores the concept of cultural biodiversity, especially with respect to indigenous seeds and medicinal plants.

As we progressively understood the causes of environmental degradation, we saw the need for good governance. Indeed, the state of any county's environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace. Many countries, which have poor governance systems, are also likely to have conflicts and poor laws protecting the environment.

In 2002, the courage, resilience, patience and commitment of members of the Green Belt Movement, other civil society organizations, and the Kenyan public culminated in the peaceful transition to a democratic government and laid the foundation for a more stable society."

Wangari Maathai came to be known as "The Tree Woman" in her native country.



Shaking the Tree 

by Peter Gabriel

We are shaking the tree
Waiting your time, dreaming of a better life
Waiting your time, you're more than just a wife
You don't want to do what your mother has done
(she has done)
This is your life, this new life has begun
It's your day -- a woman's day
It's your day -- a woman's day
Turning the tide, you are on the incoming wave
Turning the tide, you know you are nobody's slave
Find your sisters and brothers who can hear all the truth
In what you say
They can support you when you're on your way
It's your day -- a woman's day
It's your day -- a woman's day

We are shaking the tree
Changing your ways, changing those surrounding you
Changing your ways, more than any man can do
Open your heart, show him the anger and pain
So you heal
Maybe he's looking for his womanly side
And you feel you had to be so strong
And you do nothing wrong, nothing wrong at all
We're gonna to break it down
We have to shake it down, shake it all around
We are shaking the trees


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment by Marieke van Woerkom, a trainer and global facilitator who works as a staff developer for Morningside Center.

We welcome your comments. Please email them to Marieke at:,or to Morningside Center at: