Hailed as an ‘exceptional environmental activist’ by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, the late and fêted conservationist and politician Wangari Muta Maathai was a strong pillar in the empowerment of women, advocating democracy and protecting the earth.
Born in Nyeri district, Kenya in 1940, the first female African Nobel Peace Prize laureate led a life most people will call accomplished.
Her death at the age of 71 on Sunday 25th September, 2011, at Nairobi Hospital after a long brawl with cancer, left the world sad.
However, we are grateful that we witnessed a woman who did not have to be ridiculously wealthy to help the world. Her death diminishes our planet but her dreams continue.
As founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai encouraged people to protect the environment through simple measures like planting trees.
She was wise enough to see that for the disempowered; planting trees was in fact a fundamental act of self-assertion.
Referred to as ‘a mad woman’ by Kenya’s former president Daniel Arap Moi, Maathai, amidst being beaten and arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, continued with her work in belief that it would help reduce poverty and conflict.
Maathai believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict.
The Kenyan organization she founded planted 30 million trees in hope of improving the chances for peace, a triumph for nature that inspired the United Nations to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.
Speaking about Rwanda’s National Forest Policy, the university professor said that Rwanda had laid out not only impressive policies on the environment, but also on women empowerment and health.
“Rwanda has sought not only to make its forests a national priority but has also used them as a platform to revolutionize its stances on women’s rights and creating a healthy environment,” she was quoted.
“Many said, ‘She is just planting trees.’ But that was important, not only from an environmental perspective, to stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate women and fight the Daniel Arap Moi regime,” said GeirLundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004.
“Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment, with the struggle for women’s rights and fight for democracy,” he said.
After Arap Moi left government, Maathai served as an assistant minister for the environment and natural resources ministry. Although the tree-planting campaign launched by her group, The Green Belt Movement, did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.
Known to some as the Tree Mother of Africa, Maathai’s work was quickly recognized by groups and governments the world over, winning awards, accolades and partnerships with powerful organizations.
Meanwhile, her dedication to nature remained, as seen in her role in a movie called ‘Dirt! The Movie’ where Maathai narrated the story of a hummingbird carrying one drop of water at a time to fight a forest fire, even as animals like the elephant asked why the hummingbird was wasting his energy.
Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said Maathai’s death “strikes at the core of the nation’s heart.” He added that Maathai died just as the causes she so enthusiastically fought for were getting the attention they deserved. Archbishop Desmond Tutu called her a ‘true African heroine.’
A woman with such influence and power that didn’t come from wealth or other earthly things but with the simplicity of understanding and respecting the earth in its most natural form left the world wounded with her loss.
May her selfless and inspiring soul rest in eternal peace. She will always be deeply remembered.