Wangari Maathai is the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize. Wangari was of Kenyan citizenship. She was particularly recognized because of her fearless social activism and crusade for protecting the environment. It was in this vein that she founded the Green Belt Movement. She decided to found this movement in 1977 and planted tens of millions of trees in Kenya. This was a great thing since it was in the context of fighting desertification in Kenya. Now, she passed away this week, last Sunday at the age of 71 after a long struggle with a cancer.
Indeed, her death was officially confirmed in a statement on the website of her movement. This is how runs the obituary message on the site ‘ it is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25 September 2011, at the Nairobi hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time.’
For the people who knew Maathai will remember that she a woman pioneer from her early age and this was in different spheres of life. Just after she had won a scholarship to study in the US, she returned to a newly independent Kenya, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to get a PhD. Furthermore, Maathai was also the first woman Professor at the University of Nairobi, where she taught veterinary medicine for some years.
Her work with voluntary groups alerted her to the struggles of women in rural Kenya, and it quickly became her life's cause. Noticing how the rapid environmental degradation was affecting women's lives, she encouraged them to plant trees to ensure future supplies of firewood and to protect water sources and crops. This explained how her agenda quickly widened as she joined the struggle against the repressive and corrupt regime of Daniel arap Moi. Her efforts to stop powerful politicians grabbing land, especially forests, brought her into conflict with the authorities, and she was beaten and arrested numerous times. Her bravery, commitment and defiance made her a hero in Kenya and in the entire Africa.
It is only in 2004 that she was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. On the occasion, the Nobel committee said that Maathai’s unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression at both national and international levels. She served as an assistant minister in President Mwai Kibaki's government from 2003 to 2005, but her refusal to keep silent on some issues saw her politically sidelined. This made her lose her seat after a single term. Her work schedule remained hectic however, and she wrote several books and travelled widely.
On several occasions this year alone, Maathai had been in and out of hospital this year. But majority of Kenyans were not informed of her illness until it was reported in the local media late last week. The death of Professor Maathai is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her as a carrying mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine. The people who admired her strength of mind to make the world a more peaceful, healthier and better place will always be disheartened by her untimely departure.