News / Africa

Kenya Says Final Goodbye to Wangari Maathai

A member of the Kenya Forest Service salutes the late Wangari Maathai next to the hearse carrying her coffin, at her state funeral held at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, Kenya, October 8, 2011.
A member of the Kenya Forest Service salutes the late Wangari Maathai next to the hearse carrying her coffin, at her state funeral held at Freedom Corner in Uhuru Park, Nairobi, Kenya, October 8, 2011.
Gabe Joselow

Kenya said farewell Saturday to Nobel Prize winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai.  Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki oversaw a state funeral in the capital Nairobi, making Maathai only the third Kenyan, and the first woman to receive such an honor. 

The woman who risked her life time and again to save the trees of Kenya, would not allow a single tree to be cut down for the sake of a wood coffin.

Instead, her body was carried from the Lee funeral home Saturday morning in a casket made of hyacinth, papyrus, and bamboo.

Crowds lined the streets as the funeral procession made its way to Uhuru Park in downtown Nairobi.

It was here, in this park, where Maathai famously stood up to developers, and the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi, to prevent the construction of a 60 story skyscraper.  So it was fitting that her funeral would take place in an area of the park that has been renamed Freedom Corner.

She received all the honors of a fallen hero.  A military band played the National Anthem as the hearse carrying her casket pulled into the park.  Kenya's top officials and a few foreign dignitaries stood silently.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki presided over the ceremony. “Certainly, she has stood out as Kenya's most outstanding champion of environmental sustainability, and through her relentless efforts, present and future generations in our country and the region will enjoy a much cleaner and safer environment,” he said.

Through her Green Belt movement, Maathai organized the planting of some 30 million trees throughout Kenya. Her family planted one more in her honor at the ceremony in Uhuru Park.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said her impact on Kenya will not be soon forgotten. “We have lost a great, dedicated, selfless Kenyan patriot. All that we want to say here: Our sister, you are not dead.  You will continue to live in the hearts of the people of Kenya.  Your work will continue to inspire the rest of the world,” he said.

Maathai rose to international fame in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental work, becoming the first African woman to win the recognition.

Her funeral came just a day after two more African women, from Liberia, were awarded the prize, along with a woman from Yemen.

After the ceremony, her body was taken to be cremated - an unusual practice in Kenya.

Thousands of people swarmed the car as it carried her body to the crematorium, slowing down Maathai's final journey.  Some even tried to force their way into the facility, desperate for one last chance to say goodbye.

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