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Good Reads: Wangari Maathai lives on – and so will Facebook

Wangari Maathai, Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, passed on this weekend. But Kenya has many activists who share her fearlessness, energy, and passion for justice.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / September 26, 2011

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai shows her prize to a cheering crowd as she returns from Norway, in Nairobi in this 2004 file photo.

Radu Sigheti/File/Reuters

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Wangari Maathai was Africa’s first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, a professor and environmental activist who took the beatings and harassment of the Kenyan government as a cost of doing business. Her persistence and ability to gather people around her Green Movement may have saved Kenya’s wilderness areas from the destruction that comes with unregulated growth and greed.

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Ms. Maathai passed away this weekend at the age of 71.

When I met Maathai at her Nairobi offices in the spring of 2008, just after the bloody Kenyan post-election mess had been resolved, I finally understood why civic activists can be a powerful force in society. It comes from their strength: strength of convictions, strength of character, as well as physical strength.

Maathai had all of these, and more.

The reason the Kenya peace process, led by Kofi Annan and a handful of other African leaders, had succeeded, Maathai said then, was that Mr. Annan was an African, and none of the Kenyan politicians could blame their compromises on Western imperialists.

"It helped that Kofi Annan was African," she says. "It helped the principals [President Kibaki and Raila Odinga] to realize if they were being addressed, it was by one of them. They didn't have to fight over egos. They didn't have to prove that they were the big man, because Kofi Annan was the bigger man."

In Maathai, the Monitor saw a kindred spirit, someone who felt the need to make a difference in her world. See a Monitor interview with Maathai here and a January 2010 opinion piece Maathai wrote for the Monitor.

In London’s Daily Telegraph, Mike Pflanz reminds us of the physical costs that Maathai bore in taking on the corrupt government of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, and its plans to clear-cut forested areas to put in office blocks, and also the growing influence that Maathai had after Moi’s government fell during multi-party elections.

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