By Jeffrey Gettleman
Nairobi, Kenya (September 26, 2011)- Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who started out by paying 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, anti-corruption campaigner, human rights advocate, protester 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 believed were intimately connected – but never lost focus on her native Kenya. She served as a parliamentarian and assistant minister for several years, and in 2008, after being pushed out of government, she was tear-gassed by Kenyan 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 anti-corruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for several 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, a mid-sized town 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, Kansas. 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. She formed the Green Belt Movement in 1977 which planted trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create fuel (i.e., firewood) and jobs for women.
During the 1980s, the Kenyan government labeled the Green Belt Movement “subversive” and Mrs. Maathai seemed to provoke a special scorn from the president at the time, Daniel arap Moi, by leading the charge against a government plan to build a huge skyscraper in a park. The skyscraper proposal was eventually scrapped, though not long afterward, during another protest, Mrs. Maathai was beaten unconscious by police.
Home life wasn’t easy either. Her husband, Mwangi, divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman. When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge, she was thrown in jail. Still, throughout the years she managed to rack up honorary degrees and innumerable awards, including France’s LÃ©gion d’Honneur and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun.
The Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”
Her battle with cancer was a surprise to many here in Nairobi. Her organization did not provide details but Kenyan media reported that she had been in the hospital for at least a week.
She is survived by three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, and a granddaughter Ruth Wangari, according to a statement from the Green Belt Movement. The organization said, “Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her, as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy and better place for all of us.”
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