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

Changing Under Pressure, IS ‘Potent’ as Ever

US intel officials describe Ramadi's fall as concerning, but say it isn't emblematic of larger effort to degrade IS capabilities More

Nigeria Fuel Shortage Shows Fragility of Africa’s Oil Giant

Although it is the largest oil producer in Africa, country has nearly ran out of fuel it needs to power its generators, cars and airplanes over the past week More

Arrested Football Officials Come Mainly From the Americas

US Justice Department alleges defendants participated in 24-year scheme to enrich themselves through corruption of international soccer More

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

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Cari
|| 0:00:00
...    
🔇
X
George Putic
May 27, 2015 9:31 PM
Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video 3D Printer Makes Replica of Iconic Sports Car

Cars with parts made by 3D printers are already on the road, but engineers are still learning about this new technology. While testing the possibility of printing an entire car, researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy recently created an electric-powered replica of an iconic sports roadster. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video US Voters Seek Answers From Presidential Candidates on IS Gains

The growth of the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria comes as the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign kicks off in the Midwest state of Iowa.   As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, voters want to know how the candidates would handle recent militant gains in the Middle East.
Video

Video A Small Oasis on Kabul's Outskirts Provides Relief From Security Tensions

When people in Kabul want to get away from the city and relax, many choose Qargha Lake, a small resort on the outskirts of Kabul. Ayesha Tanzeem visited and talked with people about the precious oasis.
Video

Video Film Festival Looks at Indigenous Peoples, Culture Conflict

A recent Los Angeles film festival highlighted the plight of people caught between two cultures. Mike O'Sullivan has more on the the Garifuna International Film Festival, a Los Angeles forum created by a woman from Central America who wants the world to know more about her culture.
Video

Video Kenyans Lament Losing Sons to al-Shabab

There is agony, fear and lost hope in the Kenyan town of Isiolo, a key target of a new al-Shabab recruitment drive. VOA's Mohammed Yusuf visits Isiolo to speak with families and at least one man who says he was a recruiter.
Video

Video Scientists Say Plankton More Important Than Previously Thought

Tiny ocean creatures called plankton are mostly thought of as food for whales and other large marine animals, but a four-year global study discovered, among other things, that plankton are a major source of oxygen on our planet. VOA’s George Putic reports.
Video

Video US-led Coalition Gives Some Weapons to Iraqi Troops

In a video released Tuesday from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, Iraqi forces and U.S.-led coalition troops survey a cache of weapons supplied to help Iraq liberate Mosul from Islamic State group. According to a statement provided with the video, the ministry and the U.S.-led coaltion troops have started ''supplying the 16th army division with medium and light weapons in preparation to liberate Mosul and nearby areas from Da'esh (Arabic acronym for Islamic State group).''
Video

Video Amnesty International: 'Overwhelming Evidence' of War Crimes in Ukraine

Human rights group Amnesty International says there is overwhelming evidence of ongoing war crimes in Ukraine, despite a tentative cease-fire with pro-Russian rebels. Researchers interviewed more than 30 prisoners from both sides of the conflict and all but one said they were tortured. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Washington Parade Honors Those Killed Serving in US Military

Every year, on the last Monday in the month of May, millions of Americans honor the memories of those killed while serving in the armed forces. Memorial Day is a tradition that dates back to the 19th Century. While many people celebrate the federal holiday with a barbecue and a day off from work, for those who’ve served in the military, it’s a special day to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Arash Arabasadi reports for VOA from Washington.
Video

Video Kenya’s Capital Sees Rise in Shisha Parlors

In Kenya, the smoking of shisha, a type of flavored tobacco, is the latest craze. Patrons are flocking to shisha parlors to smoke and socialize. But the practice can be addictive and harmful, though many dabblers may not realize the dangers, according to a new review. Lenny Ruvaga has more on the story for VOA from Nairobi, Kenya.
Video

Video Rolling Thunder Run Reveals Changed Attitudes Towards Vietnam War

For many US war veterans, the Memorial Day holiday is an opportunity to look back at a divisive conflict in the nation’s history and to remember those who did not make it home.
Video

Video Female American Soldiers: Healing Through Filmmaking

According to the United States Defense Department, there are more than 200-thousand women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces.  Like their male counterparts, females have experiences that can be very traumatic.  VOA's Bernard Shusman tells us about a program that is helping some American women in the military heal through filmmaking.

VOA Blogs