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

Isolation, Despair Weigh on Refugees in Remote German Camp

Refugees resettled near village of Holzdorf deep in German forestland say there is limited interaction with public, mutual feelings of distrust

Britons Divided Over Bombing IS

Surveys show Europeans generally support more military action against Islamic State militants, but sizable opposition exists in Britain

Russia Blacklists Soros Foundations as 'Undesirable'

Russian officials add Soros groups to a list of foreign and international organizations banned from giving grants to Russian partners

This forum has been closed.
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.
With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?i
Carol Pearson
November 29, 2015 1:23 PM
The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video With HIV, Can We Get to Zero?

The theme of this year's World AIDS Day is "Getting to Zero." The U.N. says new HIV infections have been reduced by 35 percent since 2000 and AIDS-related deaths are down by 42 percent since the peak in 2004. VOA's Carol Pearson takes a look at what it might take to actually have an AIDS-free generation.

Video Political Motives Seen Behind Cancelled Cambodian Water Festival

For the fourth time in the five years since more than 350 people were killed in a stampede at Cambodia’s annual water festival, authorities canceled the event this year. Officials blamed environmental reasons as the cause, but many see it as fallout from rising political tensions with a fresh wave of ruling party intimidation against the opposition. David Boyle and Kimlong Meng report from Phnom Penh.

Video African Circus Gives At-Risk Youth a 2nd Chance

Ethiopia hosted the first African Circus Arts Festival this past weekend with performers from seven different African countries. Most of the performers are youngsters coming form challenging backgrounds who say the circus gave them a second chance.

Video US Lawmakers Brace for End-of-Year Battles

U.S. lawmakers are returning to Washington for Congress’ final working weeks of the year. And, as VOA's Michael Bowman reports, a full slate of legislative business awaits them, from keeping the federal government open to resolving a battle with the White House over the admittance of Syrian refugees.

Video Taiwan Looks for Role in South China Sea Dispute

The Taiwanese government is one of several that claims territory in the hotly contested South China Sea, but Taipei has long been sidelined in the dispute, overshadowed by China. Now, as the Philippines challenges Beijing’s claims in an international court at The Hague, Taipei is looking to publicly assert its claims. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.

Video After Terrorist Attacks, Support for Refugees Fades

The terrorists who killed and injured almost 500 people around Paris this month are mostly French or Belgian nationals. But at least two apparently took advantage of Europe’s migrant crisis to sneak into the region. The discovery has hardened views about legitimate refugees, including those fleeing the same extremist violence that hit the French capital. Lisa Bryant has this report for VOA from the Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise

Video Syrian Refugees in US Express Concern for Those Left Behind

Syrian immigrants in the United States are concerned about the negative tide of public opinion and the politicians who want to block a U.S. plan to accept 10,000 Syrian refugees. Zlatica Hoke reports many Americans are fighting to dispel suspicions linking refugees to terrorists.

Video Thais Send Security Concerns Down the River

As Thailand takes in the annual Loy Krathong festival, many ponder the country’s future and security. Steve Sandford reports from Chiang Mai.

Video Islamic State Unfazed by Losses in Iraq, Syria

Progress in the U.S.-led effort to beat Islamic State on its home turf in Iraq and Syria has led some to speculate the terror group may be growing desperate. But counterterror officials say that is not the case, and warn the recent spate of terror attacks is merely part of the group’s evolution. VOA National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Belgium-Germany Border Remains Porous, Even As Manhunt For Paris Attacker Continues

One of the suspected gunmen in the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, evaded law enforcement, made his way to Belgium, and is now believed to have fled to Germany. VOA correspondent Ayesha Tanzeem makes the journey across the border from Belgium into Germany to see how porous the borders really are.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

VOA Blogs