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Africa's first female Nobel Peace laureate dies at 71

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2011-09-26

Wangari Maathai, the gutsy, traditionally-robed Kenyan activist whose environment conservation work earned her the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, died of cancer on Sunday at the age of 71.

Wangari Maathai, the first African female to win the Nobel Peace Prize and a woman who was deemed, "too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control" by her former husband, succumbed to cancer at a Kenyan hospital late Sunday. She was 71.

The founder of The Green Belt Movement, a grassroots environmental NGO of primarily rural women, Maathai had been undergoing treatment for cancer at the Nairobi Hospital, where she had spent an increasing amount of time over the past year.

“It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25th September, 2011, at the Nairobi Hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time,” said a statement on The Green Belt Movement’s website.

An outspoken woman with an infectiously hearty laugh, Maathai was a familiar figure on the world stage in her brightly printed traditional African dress and her ability to enthrall audiences with her powerful, yet simple speeches.

Her decades-long campaign to organise women to plant trees to combat the effects of deforestation and soil erosion won her the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, but it also earned her powerful foes in her native Kenya.

When she started her tree-planting campaign in the late 1970s, Maathai initially steered clear of political debates on democracy and governance.

But as she later noted, her experience in environmental activism made it apparent that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy. It was a revelation that frequently landed her in prison and earned her numerous violent encounters with law enforcement officials, especially the riot police.

‘That mad woman’ takes on a president

In the 1990s, Maathai took on a powerful opponent when she opposed the building of a skyscraper planned in the middle of Nairobi’s landmark Uhuru Park.

She was vilified by the then long-standing Kenyan president, Daniel Arap Moi, who dismissed her as “that mad woman”.

In 1997, she ran against Moi in a presidential election marred by violence and garnered few votes. But she did win her high-profile campaign to stop the building of the skyscraper in Uhuru Park.

She also swept the polls in the 2002 parliamentary elections, when she was elected as MP with 98% of the votes as part of an opposition coalition that stormed to power after Moi was barred from contesting the presidential election that year.

A trained biologist, Maathai was never afraid to challenge the patriarchal structures in her deeply conservative East African homeland.

When her former husband divorced her in 1979, he famously issued his “too educated, too strong” verdict, one that the presiding judge seemed to endorse when he slapped her with a six-month contempt of court sentence for calling the judge “incompetent”.

From a Kenyan village to the US and back

Born in a village in colonial Kenya, Maathai was educated in Christian missionary schools, where she excelled in her studies. In 1960, she was one of around 300 Kenyans – along with US President Barack Obama’s father – chosen to study at US universities.

In the US, Maathai specialized in biology before returning to Kenya, where she married Mwangi Mathai.

When the marriage ended, Mathai sent her a letter demanding that she drop his surname. She responded by adding an extra ‘a’ to the family name.

Back in Kenya, Maathai earned her PhD – the first woman from East and Central Africa to do so – and became a professor at the University of Nairobi, from where she began her work in women’s rights and environmental activism.

In 1977, she started The Green Belt Movement, an NGO that works with women to improve their livelihoods by increasing their access to resources like firewood for cooking and clean water. She became a high-profile advocate for better management of natural resources, with her movement successfully planting about 30 million trees, an achievement that has helped make Kenya one of the best environmentally managed countries in Africa.

Recognising Maathai’s work in 2004, the Norwegian Nobel Committee noted that, “You are the first woman from Africa to be honoured with the Nobel Peace Prize. You will also be the first African from the vast region between South Africa and Egypt to receive the prize. You stand as an example and a source of inspiration to everyone in Africa who is fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Then Nobel Committee chief Ole Danbolt Mjos ended his speech in Maathai’s native Swahili with the words, “Twakupongeza, tunasema asante sana,” – we thank you, and thank you so much.

For the millions of women – as well as their menfolk and their families – whose lives were touched and transformed by Maathai, it remains a fitting tribute to a remarkably gutsy woman.

Maathai is survived by three children and a granddaughter.

Date created : 2011-09-26


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