After dedicating her life to eradicating poverty, fighting for democracy and improving the lives of women, Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Wangari Maathai lost the battle with ovarian cancer on Sept. 25 in her homeland of Kenya at the age of 71. Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki declared two days of national mourning and held a state funeral for Maathai, a mother, environmentalist, feminist, politician, human rights advocate and the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since her passing, countless international leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Nelson Mandela and Al Gore, have released statements of condolence and remembrance of her legacy and steadfast commitment to making the world a more peaceful, healthier, better place.
“The world mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called ‘our common home and future,’” said President Barack Obama in a statement.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared in a statement, “The world has lost a powerful force for peace, democracy and women’s rights…Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build upon. I was inspired by her story and proud to call her my friend.”
Maathai was born April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya. She won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and received a bachelor’s degree there in 1964. She went on to earn a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi, making her the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold a PhD. She later became the first woman to head a university department in Kenya.
In 1977, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a grassroots organization to plant trees in Kenya in order to fight erosion and create firewood for fuel and jobs for women. According to the United Nations, the Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa, helped nearly 900,000 women and ignited similar efforts in other African countries.
Although Maathai traveled the world speaking out against environmental degradation and poverty, she always remained connected to the conservation of her homeland. When former Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi wanted to erect a skyscraper in one of central Nairobi’s only parks, Maathai organized a peaceful demonstration in protest. In return, she was beaten unconscious and arrested by police. Maathai’s act of defiance and peaceful protest was marked as “a rallying cry for women activists, environmentalists and democracy leaders,” said Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights in a recent statement.
Maathai was later elected to the Kenyan Parliament and served as a cabinet minister. After decades of activism, she won the Nobel Prize in 2004 for what the Nobel committee called “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”
She is survived by her three children and a granddaughter.