News / Africa

    Kenyan Nobel Prize Winner Maathai Dies at 71

    Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai participates in a discussion at the University of Nairobi in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, March 8, 2010.
    Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai participates in a discussion at the University of Nairobi in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, March 8, 2010.

    Environmentalist and Nobel Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai died in Kenya’s capital late Sunday after a long battle with cancer.

    Even in the midst of jubilation over winning the Nobel Peace Prize, environmentalist Wangari Maathai put her beloved Kenya first.

    Shortly after receiving the honor in 2004, Maathai described to VOA what the victory meant for efforts to halt the massive deforestation in her country.

    "This recognition in many way[s] endorses the campaign and brings it to the forefront so that leaders in this country can really realize that protecting the forest in this country is a matter of life and death," said Maathai.

    Her life’s work has been to protect Kenya’s forests from politically-elite land grabbers.  Maathai also spoke out for the rights of women at a time when most Kenyan women had little public presence beyond the homestead.

    Maathai was a major figure in the pro-democracy struggles of the 1980s and 1990s.  During her work, she was routinely harassed, beaten, tear-gassed and jailed.

    But she also achieved a litany of firsts: the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D; the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi; the first woman in east and central Africa to be appointed as a professor; the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

    It is this spirit of perseverance that her colleague Edward Wageni most remembers.  Wageni is deputy executive director of the Green Belt Movement, an environmental, civic, and women’s rights advocacy group Maathai founded in 1977.

    “What we have lost is somebody who has the courage of conviction, a person who focuses on an issue, who doesn’t really look at the people who are going to be applauding her,” said Wageni.

    Wangari Muta Maathai was born in central Kenya in 1940. At a time when it was rare for Kenyan girls to go to school, she graduated from Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959 and went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences from Mount St. Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas. She then earned a master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D at the University of Nairobi.

    In the 1970s, Maathai became active in several environmental and humanitarian groups in Nairobi, consulting widely with women in rural areas. It was then that her passion for tree-planting took root. Ever since the creation of the Green Belt Movement, more than 47 million trees have been planted in Kenya.

    Her work also involved education campaigns and linking environmental degradation with bad governance.

    Following the pro-democracy struggles, Maathai was elected a member of parliament for Tetu in the 2002 elections and was appointed deputy minister for the environment. Two years later came the Nobel Peace Prize. Since then, Maathai has headed up several international efforts, including a United Nations’ campaign to plant one billion trees as part of a global effort to fight climate change.

    But for all the accolades, awards, and honorary degrees she has received, colleagues and friends say Wangari Maathai had her two feet firmly planted in the ground.

    “She was very, very much connected to the grassroots - a person who would be able to interact with the lowest person at the grassroots, but at the same time be able to speak at the highest levels," said Green Belt Movement colleague Edward Wageni. "So she was able to link the two - the international stage, and sitting down under a tree with women discussing issues at that level.”

    Dr. Catherine Lore is a Ugandan doctor whose office is near the Green Belt Movement office in Nairobi. She says her neighbor was forthright, down-to-earth, and inspiring.

    “I reflected back [on] the day that she received the Nobel Prize," she said. "I came running here with palm leaves in a long, tall pot, which I put in front of the door there. So today, I’m shedding tears of joy, because today we are celebrating the life of a truly actualized African woman.”

    Wangari Maathai died in Nairobi September 25 while undergoing treatment for cancer. She was 71 years old.  Maathai leaves behind three children and a grandchild.

    You May Like

    Republicans Struggle With Reality of Trump Nomination

    Despite calls for unity by presumptive presidential nominee, analysts see inevitable fragmentation of party ahead of November election and beyond

    Nielsen's, Sina Weibo Team Up for Closer Look at Chinese Social Media

    US-based rating agency reaches deal with China's Twitter-like service to gauge marketing effectiveness on platform which has more than 200 million users

    Despite Cease-fire, Myanmar Landmine Scourge Goes Unaddressed

    Myanmar has third-highest mine casualty rate in the world, according to Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor, which says between 1999 to 2014 it recorded 3,745 casualties, 396 of whom died

    This forum has been closed.
    Comments
         
    There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

    By the Numbers

    Featured Videos

    Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
    Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limitedi
    X
    Katie Arnold
    May 04, 2016 12:31 PM
    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Press Freedom in Myanmar Fragile, Limited

    As Myanmar begins a new era with a democratically elected government, many issues of the past confront the new leadership. Among them is press freedom in a country where journalists have been routinely harassed or jailed.
    Video

    Video Taliban Threats Force Messi Fan to Leave Afghanistan

    A young Afghan boy, who recently received autographed shirts and a football from his soccer hero Lionel Messi, has fled his country due to safety concerns. He and his family are now taking refuge in neighboring Pakistan. VOA's Ayaz Gul reports from Islamabad.
    Video

    Video Major Rubbish Burning Experiment Captures Destructive Greenhouse Gases

    The world’s first test to capture environmentally harmful carbon dioxide gases from the fumes of burning rubbish took place recently in Oslo, Norway. The successful experiment at the city's main incinerator plant, showcased a method for capturing most of the carbon dioxide. VOA’s Deborah Block has more.
    Video

    Video EU Visa Block Threatens To Derail EU-Turkey Migrant Deal

    Turkish citizens could soon benefit from visa-free travel to Europe as part of the recent deal between the EU and Ankara to stem the flow of refugees. In return, Turkey has pledged to keep the migrants on Turkish soil and crack down on those who are smuggling them. Brussels is set to publish its latest progress report Wednesday — but as Henry Ridgwell reports from London, many EU lawmakers are threatening to veto the deal over human rights concerns.
    Video

    Video Tensions Rising Ahead of South China Sea Ruling

    As the Philippines awaits an international arbitration ruling on a challenge to China's claims to nearly all of the South China Sea, it is already becoming clear that regardless of which way the decision goes, the dispute is intensifying. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
    Video

    Video Painting Captures President Lincoln Assassination Aftermath

    A newly restored painting captures the moments following President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. It was recently unveiled at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where America’s 16th president was shot. It is the only known painting by an eyewitness that captures the horror of that fateful night. VOA’s Julie Taboh tells us more about the painting and what it took to restore it to its original condition.
    Video

    Video Elephant Summit Results in $5M in Pledges, Presidential Support

    Attended and supported by three African presidents, a three-day anti-poaching summit has concluded in Kenya, resulting in $5 million in pledges and a united message to the world that elephants are worth more alive than dead. The summit culminated at the Nairobi National Park with the largest ivory burn in history. VOA’s Jill Craig attended the summit and has this report about the outcomes.
    Video

    Video Displaced By War, Syrian Artist Finds Inspiration Abroad

    Saudi-born Syrian painter Mohammad Zaza is among the millions who fled their home for an uncertain future after Syria's civil war broke out. Since fleeing Syria, Zaza has lived in Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and now Turkey where his latest exhibition, “Earth is Blue like an Orange,” opened in Istanbul. He spoke with VOA about how being displaced by the Syrian civil war has affected the country's artists.
    Video

    Video Ethiopia’s Drought Takes Toll on Children

    Ethiopia is dealing with its worst drought in decades, thanks to El Nino weather patterns. An estimated 10 million people urgently need food aid. Six million of them are children, whose development may be compromised without sufficient help, Marthe van der Wolf reports for VOA from the Metahara district.
    Video

    Video Little Havana - a Slice of Cuban Culture in Florida

    Hispanic culture permeates everything in Miami’s Little Havana area: elderly men playing dominoes as they discuss politics, cigar rollers deep at work, or Cuban exiles talking with presidential candidates at a Cuban coffee window. With the recent rapprochement between Cuba and United States, one can only expect stronger ties between South Florida and Cuba.
    Video

    Video California Republicans Weigh Presidential Choices Amid Protests

    Republican presidential candidates have been wooing local party leaders in California, a state that could be decisive in selecting the party's nominee for U.S. president. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports delegates to the California party convention have been evaluating choices, while front-runner Donald Trump drew hundreds of raucous protesters Friday.
    Video

    Video ‘The Lights of Africa’ - Through the Eyes of 54 Artists

    An exhibition bringing together the work of 54 African artists, one from each country, is touring the continent after debuting at COP21 in Paris. Called "Lumières d'Afrique," the show centers on access to electricity and, more figuratively, ideas that enlighten. Emilie Iob reports from Abidjan, the exhibition's first stop.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora