Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, who has died aged 71, was accorded the ultimate honour by her country of a state funeral and two days of national mourning. Her remains were placed in a bamboo-frame coffin made of water hyacinth and papyrus reeds. She was cremated and her remains were interred in the compound of the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.
Wangari Muta Maathai (1 April 1940–25 September 2011), was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government. She was the first African woman to receive the award. The Nobel Committee hailed her as “a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on the continent … her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression”.
In her acceptance speech, she said, “I came to understand that when the environment is destroyed, plundered or mismanaged, we undermine our quality of life and that of future generations. Tree planting became a natural choice to address some of the initial basic needs identified by women. Also, tree planting is simple, attainable and guarantees quick, successful results within a reasonable amount of time.”
Two years later, she co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five fellow laureates with the aim of promoting peace and equality around the world.
She was renowned as a fearless social activist and an environmental crusader and she will be remembered for courage and tenacity in seeking social justice, conservation, democracy and in fighting corruption. She paid a heavy price for her courage, with beatings and incarceration during her activist years.
Maathai was a pioneer from an early age. After winning a scholarship to study in the US, she gained a degree in Biological Sciences and a Master’s from the University of Pittsburgh. Her work involved new techniques in tissue processing that were largely unknown in Kenya, and on her return to a newly independent Kenya, her expertise was in great demand. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to gain a PhD. She became chair of the Department of Veterinary Anatomy and an associate professor. In both cases, she was the first woman to attain those positions in the region.
Professor Maathai was active in the National Council of Women of Kenya in 1976–87 and was its chairman from 1981–87. 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. In 1976, she introduced the idea of community-based tree planting.
She continued to develop this idea into a broad-based grassroots organisation whose main focus is poverty reduction and environmental conservation through tree planting. With her Green Belt Movement, Professor Maathai assisted women in planting more than 40m trees on community lands including farms, schools and church compounds. “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them,” Maathai said.
In the 1980s and ’90s, the GBM allied with other movements for change: successful campaigns included stopping a skyscraper being built in Uhuru Park, an oasis of green that flanks the main highway running through the centre of Nairobi, and halting the seizure of public land in Karura Forest in the north of the city (she was whipped and beaten by guards during a demonstration). She was also one of the leaders of a year-long vigil alongside mothers of political prisoners; 51 men were released as a result.
Maathai was elected to Kenya’s parliament in 2002, and subsequently nominated Deputy Minister for the Environment. She was quick to import the Movement’s strategies of empowerment into the Ministry, emphasising reforestation, the protection of existing woodland and the restoration of damaged land. She went further, introducing various educational initiatives, scholarships for children orphaned by HIV/Aids and help with nutrition for those living with the disease. Then came the Nobel Prize. In 2006, with the UN, she launched a new “billion tree” campaign, which met its target within a year; today almost 14bn trees have been planted under its auspices.
Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement received a host of awards, including Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun, the Légion d’Honneur and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights.
She wrote four books: The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience; The Challenge for Africa; Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World and an autobiography, Unbowed. Last year she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies.
Remaining green to the end, Professor Maathai expressed a wish not to be buried in a wooden coffin in order to protect the forests. She is survived by her three children – Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.
Though Maathai is longer with us, her spirit and inspiration will live on. “We cannot tire or give up,” she once said. “We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!”