Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies at 71
Monday, September 26, 2011
NAIROBI, Kenya – Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who started out by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died late on Sunday after battling cancer. She was 71.
Mrs. Maathai, one of the most famous and widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats – environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement she founded. She was as comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi’s slums or the muddy hillsides of central Kenya as she was hobnobbing with heads of state. In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, with the Nobel committee citing “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” It was a moment of immense pride in Kenya and across Africa.
Mrs. Maathai toured the world, speaking out against environmental degradation and poverty – which she pointed out early on were intimately connected – but never lost focus on her native Kenya. She was a thorn in the side of Kenya’s previous president, Daniel Arap Moi, and when he finally stepped down after 24 years in power, she served as a member of parliament and as an assistant minister for a few years. But she soon fell out of favor with Kenya’s new leaders and lost her seat. In 2008, after being pushed out of government, she was tear-gassed by the police during a protest against the excesses of Kenya’s well-entrenched political class.
“Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views. “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.”
Wangari Muta Maathai was born in 1940 in Nyeri, Kenya, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. She was a star student and won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan. She went on to obtain a doctorate in veterinary anatomy, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree, according to the Nobel Prize Web site. In 1977, she formed the Green Belt Movement, which planted trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create fuel (i.e., firewood) and jobs for women.