The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai of Kenya, died overnight at a Nairobi hospital. Her organization, the Green Belt Movement, said Wangari had been undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71.
She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women's rights and transparent government. A great champion of the natural and the urban environment, she was elected to Parliament in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time.
Known in Kenya as "the tree woman", Professor Maathai started earning a name for herself in the late 1970s when she led a campaign called the Green Belt Movement to plant tens of millions of trees across Africa to stem deforestation. "It is with great sadness that the Green Belt Movement announces the passing of its founder and chair, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, after a long illness bravely borne," the movement said in a statement.
"Professor Maathai passed away on the 26th of September 2011 in Nairobi. Her family and loved ones were with her at the time," said the statement signed by the movement's Executive Director Karanja Njoroge.
In the years before becoming a Nobel laureate, she branded the forest clearances a political ploy that caused irreversible environmental damage. The courts blocked her suits and Green Belt lawyers complained that their cases were dismissed on technical grounds or their files were mysteriously lost.
"Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her -- as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine -- or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy, and better place for all of us," the statement added.
At the time of her Nobel Peace Prize, she said she had always been supported in her work by the United Nations. She cited the award, as recognition by the Nobel Committee of the role women have played and continue to play to make the world a more peaceful place.
"The Nobel Peace Prize has recognized work which pre-empts conflict and wars. In implementing strategies which ensure holistic sustainable development, by inculcating values of democratic governance we promote respect for rights and responsibilities, justice and equity," Professor Maathai said at the time.
She was the 12th woman peace laureate, and the sixth from Africa. The others are former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2001, and four South Africans – Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk of South Africa in 1993, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 1984, and the late Albert John Luthuli in 1960.
Muungano Wa Wanavijiji and the world will remember Professor Maathai for her dedication to the betterment of humanity especially in the areas of the environment, sustainable development, human rights, and democracy. Her dedication is evidenced by the Nobel Peace Prize bestowed on her in 2004 and it demonstrates that she lived for peace and the dignity of mankind.
The Nobel Laureate is set to cremated at the Kariokor crematorium this week. Rest In Peace Wangari Mathai!
”When the British came they introduced the concept of title deeds for land, which they insisted be in the name of the head of the household. That was always the man ... That undermined the traditional setting whereby land belongs to the family. This reform stopped women having legal right to the land ... When the cash came in, it went into a bank account held by the man, even though it was women and children who did the work in the fields. Women were completely disenfranchised.” From the article “Planting the future”, The Guardian, 16 February 2007.
”In Kenya, before the British arrived, animals, especially goats, were the main form of exchange. The life of a man was worth about 30 goats. When the British decided to collect revenue they did not want to be paid in goats.” From the article “This Much I Know”, The Observer Magazine, 8 June 2008.
”When the British arrived, they started cutting down indigenous forests and replacing them with monocultural forests, such as pines and eucalyptus trees, which were quick growing and so would supply material for telephone poles and housing.” From the article “Planting the future”, The Guardian, 16 February 2007.
”Entire communities also come to understand that while it is necessary to hold their governments accountable, it is equally important that in their own relationships with each other, they exemplify the leadership values they wish to see in their own leaders, namely justice, integrity and trust.” From Wangari Maathai's Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.
”When I became a member of parliament, I discovered fighting corruption in government circles, fighting dishonesty and trying to promoe fairness is often not appreciated by those who benefit from the corrupt practices.” From the article “This Much I Know”, The Observer Magazine, 8 June 2008.
”Although initially the Green Belt Movement's tree planting activities did not address issues of democracy and peace, it soon became clear that responsible governance of the environment was impossible without democratic space. Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya.” From Wangari Maathai's Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.
”I got into politics because I wanted to show that we don't need to be thieves. There must be another way of doing politics in my country.” From the article “Planting the future”, The Guardian, 16 February 2007.
”[T]he state of any county's environment is a reflection of the kind of governance in place, and without good governance there can be no peace.” From Wangari Maathai's Nobel Lecture, delivered in Oslo, 10 December 2004.
”[W]ithout the British, [Kenya] would not have had the corruption and greed that accompanied the first 30 years of independence.” From the article “Planting the future”, The Guardian, 16 February 2007.
”The time I was [in America] coincided with Martin Luther King's campaigning. When it became clear Kenya was going to become independent, King's words were resonant for me: 'Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” From the article “Planting the future”, The Guardian, 16 February 2007.