The great African (Kenyan) environmentalist, founder of the Green Belt Movement and the first African woman to win the Nobel Prize, Wangari Maathai passed away yesterday from cancer. I had the good fortune to see her speak at a conference years ago in Washington, D.C. She was an inspiration to millions and her efforts on behalf of the environment, women and democracy are profound achievements. Her legacy has been huge and she will be very missed.
Here is a clip from Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai – a documentary film highlighting her life and work.
Here she is telling an inspiring story. “I will be the hummingbird” in the documentary “Dirt”
And here she is speaking with Democracy Now
two years ago on climate change and the U.N. talks.
From the New York Times obituary:
NAIROBI, Kenya — 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 Sunday. She was 71…
Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats — 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 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.
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 Nation’s environmental program. He likened her to Africa’s ubiquitous acacia trees, “strong in character and able to survive sometimes the harshest of conditions.”
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…..
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.” Read the entire obituary here.
Her books include:
Replenishing the Earth
Unbowed: A Memoir
The Challenge for Africa
The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience