Yesterday, the world said goodbye to one of its most fearless environmental voices – Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai. Decades ahead of her time, the brilliant Kenyan author and environmental activist founded the Green Belt Movement that has since planted millions of trees. She stood up for the environment long before it was fashionable to do so, and steadfastly challenged her own corrupt government when there was no one to protect her from dangerous consequences. In 2004, Wangari Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote “a holistic approach to sustainable development” that focused on the interrelatedness of social injustice and environmental degradation. She was the first African woman to receive that prize, a source of enormous pride for women everywhere.
Born into a deeply patriarchal society that still struggles to give voices to both women and the environment, Maathai rose up against all odds to obtain a PhD in Veterinary Anatomy – the very first African women to achieve such high educational ranking. She used her considerable learning to advance the plight of Kenyan women in particular, and to empower them to protect their vast, but vulnerable natural resources. The New York Times reports that the international community embraced her activism and showered Maathai with honorary degrees and awards, including France’s Légion d’Honneur and Japan’s Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. But in Kenya, she often stood alone.
The Green Belt Movement website reports that the visionary’s death came unexpectedly and until today African environmentalists and women around the world have looked to Wangari Maathai’s extraordinary example for strength to fight their own battles. Now they will look to her enduring memory.