On September 25, Nobel Laureate, environmental, political activist and visionary, Wangari Maathai, succumbed to ovarian cancer in a Nairobi hospital. She was 71 years old. A revolutionary from Kenya, Maathai’s work advanced economic, social and environmental progress – and sought to elevate the status of women in Kenya.
Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement, founded in 1977, was responsible for the planting of some 47 million trees throughout Kenya, which not only benefited the country’s ecosystem, but rural Kenyans – women in particular – who were at the lowest rungs of society.
During the 1970’s, Maathai was appalled upon witnessing the deteriorating natural – and social – environment rural Kenyans were subjected to. All Africa’s homage to the Nobel Laureate states, “She learned how the women lacked firewood for cooking and heating, how they struggled to obtain clean water and how nutritious food was hard to get.”
The Greenbelt Movement responded to these critical needs. Rural women developed a deeper connection with the earth, learning that trees were at the heart of their survival, providing wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, protected watersheds, and much more.
Inspired by her brilliance, representatives from several African countries traveled to Kenya to learn how they can adapt her methods to their homeland in the hopes of combat desertification, deforestation, water crises, and rural hunger.
Wangari Maathai’s revolutionary practices were a threat to the Kenyan status quo, for which she was persecuted over the years. In more recent times, the trailblazer fought against the establishment to secure democracy in Kenya and in 2002 she was elected Member of Parliament for Tetu. On the long list of accolades is her title of becoming the first African Nobel Peace Laureate (2004). Additionally, in 2006, Wangari Maathai joined the United Nations Environment Program to launch a campaign carried out the sowing of billions of trees around the world.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu praised Maathai as a true “visionary African woman” and called her a “leading voice on the continent.” His statement to CNN continues:
“Professor Maathai introduced the idea of women planting trees in Kenya to reduce poverty and conserve the environment… At last count, the Green Belt Movement she helped to found had assisted women to plant more than 40 million trees. She understood and acted on the inextricable links between poverty, rights and environmental sustainability. One can but marvel at her foresight and the scope of her success. She was a true African heroine.“