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Kenyans Mourn Nobel Prize Winning Environmentalist, Wangari Maathai

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Posted September 28, 2011 by Ugandan Diaspora News Team in Featured ~ 2,977 views

     

A Legacy of  “I will do the Best I can”  ~ By JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, NYT ~ Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who began a movement to reforest her country by paying poor women a few shillings to plant trees and who went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died here on September 25th. She was 71.

Barrack Obama with Wangari Maathai in Nairobi, Kenya. Dr. Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died in Nairobi on Sunday. She was 71.

The cause was cancer, said her organization, the Green Belt Movement. Kenyan news outlets said that she had been treated for ovarian cancer in the past year and that she had been in a hospital for at least a week before she died.

Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, played many roles — environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.

Dr. Maathai with New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and former president Bill Clinton at the Clinton Global Initiative Annual Meeting in 2007.

Dr. Maathai was as comfortable in the gritty streets of Nairobi’s slums or the muddy hillsides of central Kenya as she was hobnobbing with heads of state. She won the Peace Prize in 2004 for what the Nobel committee called “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” It was a moment of immense pride in Kenya and across Africa.

Kenyans are in mourning following the recent death of Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai.  Some shared their thoughts at a park in Nairobi that Maathai famously fought to defend.

Uhuru Park is a peaceful stretch of land on the edge of downtown Nairobi.

The name means freedom.  And Kenyans owe the existence of this beautiful place to the environmentalist work of Wangari Maathai.

Paul Gatheru came to Nairobi six months ago. He says he spent many peaceful hours here while looking for work in the Kenyan capital.

“After realizing that she is the person behind this park and how she actually fought about it, we could not be enjoying it as we enjoy it now,” Gatheru said.

Maathai saved the parkland from development more than 20 years ago — leading demonstrations and eventually defeating the developers in court.

If not for her action, Mary Wambui Mwaura – a city worker here for the past 10 years – would not have a job.

“In that time, the government wanted to grab this ground, to build private houses.  But Wangari [stood] firmly and said ‘no, that can’t happen,’” she remembered.

In 2004, Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism — becoming the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the award.

She is also remembered for her political activism, particularly against the government of former President Daniel Arap Moi.

Nairobi businessman Eliud Thigari recalls meeting Maathai during a political event at a church in the town of Thika.

“We happened to meet with her, to interact with her within that church, and she told us to fight, to not to fear, to fight for our democracy,” he said.  “Since then we continued to fight until such a time, the government of today allowed us to have a multi-party democracy.  That was in the year 2001.”

Shukri Aden says he learned to respect and love the environment while growing up, thanks to Maathai.

“We lost a woman who is very friendly to the environment, she was such an environmentalist woman.  She has conserved a lot of places in the environment.  So it’s just a big blow to Kenyans.  We’ve lost a very very fantastic woman,” Aden said.

Kenyans say there may never be another Wangari Maathai, but her message will not be forgotten.

Her Green Belt Movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and has helped nearly 900,000 women, according to the United Nations, while inspiring similar efforts in other African countries.

“Wangari Maathai was a force of nature,” said Achim Steiner, the executive director of the United Nations’ environmental program. He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”

Oprah Winfrey and Tom Cruise with Dr. Maathai during the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo on December 11, 2004.

Dr. Maathai toured the world, speaking out against environmental degradation and poverty, which she said early on were intimately connected. But she never lost focus on her native Kenya. She was a thorn in the side of Kenya’s previous president, Daniel arap Moi, whose government labeled the Green Belt Movement “subversive” during the 1980s.

Mr. Moi was particularly scornful of her leading the charge against a government plan to build a huge skyscraper in one of central Nairobi’s only parks. The proposal was eventually scrapped, though not long afterward, during a protest, Dr. Maathai was beaten unconscious by the police.

When Mr. Moi finally stepped down after 24 years in power, she served as a member of Parliament and as an assistant minister on environmental issues until falling out of favor with Kenya’s new leaders and losing her seat a few years later.

In 2008, after being pushed out of government, she was hit with tear gas by the police during a protest against the excesses of Kenya’s entrenched political class.

Home life was not easy, either. Her husband, Mwangi, divorced her, saying she was too strong-minded for a woman, by her account. When she lost her divorce case and criticized the judge, she was thrown in jail.

“Wangari Maathai was known to speak truth to power,” said John Githongo, an anticorruption campaigner in Kenya who was forced into exile for years for his own outspoken views. “She blazed a trail in whatever she did, whether it was in the environment, politics, whatever.”

The United Nations Environment Programme launched its "Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign" with support from Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Professor Wangari Maathai and His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco, and in cooperation with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF).

Wangari Muta Maathai was born on April 1, 1940, in Nyeri, Kenya, in the foothills of Mount Kenya. A star student, she won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan., receiving a degree in 1964. She earned a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh.

She went on to obtain a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree, according to the Nobel Prize Web site. She also taught at the university as an associate professor and was chairwoman of its veterinary anatomy department in the 1970s.

A day before she was scheduled to receive the Nobel, Dr. Maathai was forced to respond to a report in The East African Standard, a daily newspaper in Nairobi, that she had likened AIDS to a “biological weapon,” telling participants in an AIDS workshop in Nyeri that the disease was “a tool” to control Africans “designed by some evil-minded scientists.”

She said her comments had been taken out of context. “It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people,” she said in a statement released by the Nobel committee. “Such views are wicked and destructive.”

In presenting her with the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed her for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.”

Dr. Maathai received many honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, as well as numerous awards, including the French Legion of Honor and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. She was the author of several books, including “Unbowed: A Memoir,” published in 2006.

She is survived by three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, and a granddaughter, according to the Green Belt Movement.

Former Vice President Al Gore, a fellow Peace Prize recipient for his environmental work, said in a statement, “Wangari overcame incredible obstacles to devote her life to service — service to her children, to her constituents, to the women, and indeed all the people of Kenya — and to the world as a whole.”

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Maathai said the inspiration for her work came from growing up in rural Kenya. She reminisced about a stream running next to her home — a stream that has since dried up — and drinking fresh, clear water.

“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness,” she said, “to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”


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Ugandan Diaspora News Team

Ugandan Diaspora News Online is an independent, non political news portal primarily aimed at serving Ugandans who work and reside outside Uganda. Our aim is to be a one stop shop for everything Ugandan and the celebration of our Ugandan heritage.

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