Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, died on Sunday night of cancer. She was 71. A towering figure in Kenya, Maathai was renowned as a fearless social activist and an environmental crusader. Her Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, planted tens of millions of trees.
Maathai was a pioneer from an early age and in many spheres. After winning a scholarship to study in the US, she returned to a newly independent Kenya, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a PhD. Maathai was also the first woman professor the University of Nairobi.
Her work with voluntary groups alerted her to the struggles of women in rural Kenya, and it quickly became her life’s cause.
Noticing how the rapid environmental degradation was affecting women’s lives, she encouraged them to plant trees to ensure future supplies of firewood and to protect water sources and crops.
Her family sent her away to a primary school run by Italian nuns, where she excelled. But her remarkable academic rise to become the first woman to run a university department in Kenya was due entirely to her closeness to nature. It was the land that showed her and taught her everything, she said.
After graduating in 1959, she won a scholarship to study in the US, as part of the "Kennedy airlift" in which 300 Kenyans – including Barack Obama’s father – were chosen to study at American universities in 1960. After further study in Germany, she returned to a newly independent Kenya in 1966, and five years later become the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a PhD from an African university.
"The tree is just a symbol for what happens to the environment. The act of planting one is a symbol of revitalising the community. Tree-planting is only the entry point into the wider debate about the environment. Everyone should plant a tree," she told me.
She is survived by two daughters, Wanjira and Muta, and a son, Waweru, as well as her granddaughter, Ruth.
Wangari Maathai, environmental activist and politician, born 1 April 1940; died 25 September 2011