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

Karzai's Legacy: Missed Opportunities?

Afghanistan's president leaves behind a much different nation than the one he inherited, yet his legacy from 13 years in power is getting mixed reviews More

US Urges Restraint in Hong Kong Protests

Protesters angered by Beijing's decision to only approve candidates that it sanctions for Hong Kong's leadership elections in 2017 More

Archive of Forgotten UCLA Speeches Offers Snapshot of History

Recordings of prominent voices in social change, politics, science and literature from 1960s, early 1970s now available on YouTube 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.
Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenyai
X
Gabe Joselow
September 29, 2014 6:20 PM
Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Iran's Rouhani Skeptical on Syria Strikes

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani expressed skepticism Friday that U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq and Syria could crush Islamic State militants. From New York, VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports the president was also hopeful that questions about Iran’s nuclear program could be resolved soon.
Video

Video US House Speaker: Congress Should Debate Authorization Against IS

As wave after wave of U.S. airstrikes target Islamic State militants, the speaker of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives says he would be willing to call Congress back into session to debate a formal, broad authorization for the use of military force. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports from Washington, where legislators left town 10 days ago for a seven-week recess.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Video

Video Ebola Robs Liberians of Chance to Say Good-Bye to Loved Ones

In Liberia, where Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people, authorities have worked hard to convince people to allow specialized burial teams to take away dead bodies. But these safety measures, while necessary, make it hard for people to say good bye to their loved ones. VOA's Anne Look reports on the tragedy from Liberia.
Video

Video Reconstruction? What Reconstruction? Life After War in Gaza

It’s been a month since Israel and the Palestinians agreed to a ceasefire to end 52 days of an air and tank war that left 60,000 homes in Gaza damaged or destroyed and 110,000 homeless. Sharon Behn reports that lack of reconstruction is leading to despair.
Video

Video US, Saudi Arabia and UAE Hit Islamic State's Oil Revenue

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have bombed oil facilities operated by Islamic State militants in Syria. It was a truly collaborative effort, with the two Arab countries dropping the majority of the bombs. The 12 refineries targeted were estimated to generate as much as $2 million per day for the terrorist group. VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb has the story.
Video

Video Russia's Food Sanctions Raise Price Worries, Hopes for Domestic Production

Russia retaliated against Western sanctions imposed for its actions in Ukraine by halting food imports from the West. The temporary import ban on food from Australia, the European Union, Norway and North America has Russian consumers concerned that they could face a sharp increase in food prices. But in an ironic twist, the restrictions aimed at the Kremlin have made Russia's domestic food producers hopeful this can boost their business. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
Video

Video Washington to Pyongyang: 'Shut This Evil System Down'

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is calling on North Korea to shut down prison camps and other human rights abuses following a United Nations Commission of Inquiry into "widespread and systematic human rights violations." VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid