Wangari Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting environmental and economic wellbeing and women’s rights, died yesterday (September 25) from ovarian cancer, The New York Times reported. She was 71 years old.
Maathai touched innumerable lives around the world. In 1977 she founded the Green Belt Movement in her native Kenya, aiming to plant trees across the country to battle erosion, provide jobs for women, and firewood for fuel. Her Movement enriched Africa with more than 30 million trees and aided around 900,000 poor women by paying them a few shillings to plant trees.
Maathai’s groundbreaking work inspired similar efforts in other African countries, and in 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace,” according to the Nobel committee.
Born on April 1, 1940 in the rural foothills of Mount Kenya, Maathai credits her early encounters with nature as her inspiration. After earning a scholarship-supported biology degree at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas in 1964, Maathai completed a master’s of science at the University of Pittsburgh. When she attained a doctorate in veterinary anatomy from the University of Nairobi, Maathai became the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree. In the 1970s she taught at the university and became chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department. Maathai also toured the world, becoming an early spokeswoman for the connection between environmental degradation and poverty.
Things were not easy for the outspoken Maathai. Described as “subversive” by the Kenyan government in the 1980s, Maathai was beaten unconscious and tear-gassed by the police during protests as recently as 2008. Her husband divorced her on the grounds that she was too strong-minded for a woman, and when she criticized the judge after losing her divorce case, she was thrown in jail.
“Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service,” said former Vice President Al Gore in a statement on the Green Belt Movement’s website. “As the first environmentalist and first African woman to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari served as a true inspiration to us all.”
“Dr. Maathai was a tireless advocate for the environment, for women and for all those in the developing world who are unable to realize their potential,” said US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who considered Maathai a friend and inspiration. She “helped give ordinary citizens a voice,” Clinton said, and though “her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build upon.”
Maathai is survived by three children and a granddaughter.