Nobel Peace Prize winner and professor Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to be so honored, often dubbed “Earth Mother” for her unswerving dedication to the environment and her advocacy in the Green Belt Movement, died on Sunday, Sept. 25 at the Nairobi Hospital. She was 71.
For several years Maathai had bravely battled cervical cancer. Her loved ones were by her side at the hospital in Kenya.
It was in Kenya that Maathai, a Kikuyu, soared to international acclaim when she encouraged women of this East African nation to plant trees to improve their livelihood and to persist in their efforts to secure clean water, firewood for cooking and numerous other vital resources.
Through the resulting Green Belt Movement, more than 45 million trees were planted and nearly a million African women established tree nurseries to effectively reverse the devastating impact of deforestation, the UN announced in a tribute to her.
“Her passing is a loss for the people of Kenya and the world,” said UN leader Ban Ki-moon. “She was a globally recognized champion for human rights and women’s empowerment…a pioneer in articulating the links between human rights, poverty, environmental protection and security.”
When she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, it was a capstone of her remarkable career and devotion, particularly for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace, the Nobel committee cited.
To recount just a portion of her astonishing odyssey-which has “motion picture” written all over it-would be a challenging task given this limited space. And despite a troubled personal life, including battles with her ex-husband and standoffs with university officials, she leaves behind a legacy of epic proportions-a bit of which can be gleaned from Wikipedia or her riveting autobiography, “Unbowed.”
“Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service,” said former Vice President Al Gore. “She worked tirelessly both as an elected member of Parliament and assistant minister of environment and natural resources. She forged new ground for women in Kenya…and found her true passion as the founder of the Green Belt Movement.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, himself a Nobel laureate in 1984, said she “understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability. One can marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine…and a great inspiration to us all.”