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Wangari Maathai: Her activism saved forests, promoted peace (video)

Wangari Maathai, a 2004 Nobel peace prize winner, inspired a generation of Kenyan civic activists to challenge their leaders – both on the environment and on democratic reform.

By Correspondent / September 26, 2011

Kenya's Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai delivers her speech in front of Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda (R) at the Fourth Tokyo International Conference on African Development (TICAD) in Yokohama, south of Tokyo in this 2008 file photo.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/File/Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

Drive down toward Nairobi’s center from the city’s west, and before you hit the high-rises and the jammed grid of roads of the central business district, there is an oasis of green.

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This is Uhuru Park – Uhuru means “freedom” in KiSwahili – and if it was not for a grandmother and accidental activist who died late Sunday, it would not exist today.

In the 1980s, Wangari Maathai led hundreds of mostly women to protest government plans to pave the independence-era park and erect a 62-story headquarters for the then-ruling Kenya African National Union party.

It was a typical kind of fight for Maathai, a campaign which saw her tear-gassed, beaten, arrested, and thrown into then President Danial arap Moi’s notorious underground cells. It was the kind of fight which also won her the first Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to an African woman, in 2004.

Her fortitude and passion inspired a generation of other Kenyan civic activists in the 1990s to believe that their voices, collaboratively, could bring multi-party democracy to a dictatorship, and force changes to policies sent down from on high by governors who until then were unaccustomed to being questioned. It was her unwavering determination to pick those fights, and to succeed, which also won her the first Nobel Peace Prize to be awarded to an African woman, in 2004.

Kenya's best-known woman

Maathai – or Mama Wangari as she is known to Kenyans for whom she is as close to a national hero as anyone here – died late Sunday at Nairobi Hospital after a long battle with cancer.

She was perhaps Kenya’s best-known woman, its first woman to earn a university doctorate, and one of its first to win undergraduate and graduate scholarships to the US, where she studied in the mid-1960s at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and at the University of Pittsburgh.

By Monday evening, global tributes had swamped Twitter, where her name was one of the main trending topics. Her Facebook page saw more than 2,000 likes added in less than eight hours.

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