First African woman to win Nobel Peace Prize dies

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by Jason Straziuso
Associated Press Writer

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP)—Kenya’s former president called her a mad woman. Seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, Wangari Maathai was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, a natural wonder Maathai believed could reduce poverty and conflict.

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WORKING FOR PEACE—In this Aug. 28, 2006 photo, Wangari Maathai, Noble Peace Laureate and conservation heroine, right, is seen with then-Sen. Barrack Obama in Nairobi, Kenya. (AP Photo/Sayyid Abdul Azim, File)

Former elementary students who planted saplings alongside her, world leaders charmed by her message and African visionaries on Monday remembered a woman some called the Tree Mother of Africa. Maathai, Africa’s first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died Sept. 25 in a Nairobi hospital following a battle with cancer. She was 71.

Maathai believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict. The Kenyan organization she founded planted 30 million trees in hopes of improving the chances for peace, a triumph for nature that inspired the U.N. to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.

Maathai, a university professor with a warm smile and college degrees from the United States, staged popular protests that bedeviled former President Daniel arap Moi, a repressive and autocratic ruler who called her “a mad woman” who was a threat to the security of Kenya.

In the summer of 1998, the Kenyan government was giving land to political allies in a protected forest on Nairobi’s outskirts. Maathai began a campaign to reclaim the land, culminating in a confrontation with 200 hired thugs armed with machetes and bows and arrows. When Maathai tried to plant a tree, she and her cohorts were attacked with whips, clubs and stones. Maathai received a bloody gash on her head.

“Many said, ‘She is just planting trees.’ But that was important, not only from an environmental perspective, to stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate women and fight the Daniel arap Moi regime,” said Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004.

“Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment, with the struggle for women’s rights and fight for democracy,” he said.

Maathai said during her 2004 Peace Prize acceptance speech that the inspiration for her life’s work came from her childhood experiences in rural Kenya. There she witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.

After arap Moi left government, Maathai served as an assistant minister for the environment and natural resources ministry.

Although the tree-planting campaign launched by her group, the Green Belt Movement, did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.

“Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge wide­spread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Maathai said.

Maathai’s work was quickly recognized by groups and governments the world over, winning awards, accolades and partnerships with powerful organizations. Meanwhile, her dedication to nature remained, as could be seen in her role in a movie called “Dirt! The Movie,” where Maathai narrated the story of a hummingbird carrying one drop of water at a time to fight a forest fire, even as animals like the elephant asked why the hummingbird was wasting his energy.

“It turns to them and tells them, ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ And that to me is what all of us should do. We should always feel like a hummingbird,” she said. “I certainly don’t want to be like the animals watching as the planet goes down the drain. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”

Recognizing that never-say-die attitude, Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai’s death “strikes at the core of our nation’s heart.” Odinga said Maathai died just as the causes she fought for were getting the attention they deserve.

The United Nations Environment Program called Maathai one of Africa’s foremost environmental campaigners and recalled that Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP’s 2006 Billion Tree Campaign. More than 11 billion trees have been planted so far.

“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature. While others deployed their power and life force to damage, degrade and extract short term profit from the environment, she used hers to stand in their way, mobilize communities and to argue for conservation and sustainable development over destruction,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of UNEP.

Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa—in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later was an associate professor in the department of veterinary anatomy. She previously earned degrees from Mount St. Scholastica College—now Benedictine College—in Atchison, Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh.

Maathai is survived by three children.

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