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.

Kim Kyung-Hoon/File/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

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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.

Radio phone-in shows talked of little else, and news of her death even knocked International Criminal Court hearings of Kenya’s post-election violence off news bulletins’ top spots.

Leading conservationists and environmentalists have all talked of the enduring legacy that will be left by this fiery farmer’s daughter from central Kenya.

How Maathai's work led up to Nobel prize

Maathai made her name as the founder of the Green Belt Movement, started in a small Nairobi office in 1977, with the aim of halting widespread deforestation done – erroneously, she argued – in the name of development.

The organization grew to become one of the largest grassroots movements in Africa, harnessing women’s energy and pride to plant more than 40 million trees across the continent.

But, notably, the Nobel prize committee handed her the world award “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” The word “environment” does not appear on the citation.

“We need to rethink our concept of peace and security,” she once said. “We need to look at the way we manage and share our resources. Only then do we have hope.”

A lady before her time

“She was a lady before her time, talking of how destruction of natural resources was a sign of something wrong in government, in the democratic process, and a threat to the security and peace of people all over the world,” says Edward Wageni, deputy executive director of the Green Belt Movement.

“She could see from her own life in rural Kenya that rivers drying up and trees being cut down directly affected people’s well-being," he says. "And that it needed strong activism to alert governments to that.”

Amina Mohamed, the deputy executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme and a close friend of Maathai’s, calls her “a dear sister and a great African.”

“Her work on the environment, expansion of democratic space, the rights of the downtrodden, especially women, and the well-being of the girl-child, will define her legacy,” she said.

“It is rare for one to find acceptance and recognition at home and abroad; Wangari did that almost effortlessly. Her message was clear. Her conviction, commitment and passion were real and obvious. She was an excellent teacher, a great listener, and a wise counselor.”

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, said Maathai would be remembered as a champion of “the environment, sustainable development, women’s rights and democracy.”

"Wangari was a courageous leader,” he said. “Her energy and life-long dedication to improve the lives and livelihoods of people will continue to inspire generations of young people around the world.”

Official mourning?

Maathai is survived by three children and one grandchild. She was divorced from her husband.

Kenya’s government is understood to be considering several days of official mourning and there were calls Monday for a state funeral.

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