South Africans paid tribute on Monday to late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Muta Maathai, who died in a Nairobi hospital on Monday.
Maathai had been undergoing treatment for cancer at the age of 71.
She founded Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts in combating deforestation — the first African woman to do so.
“Wangari Muta Maathai will go down in history as a woman who put the people of Kenya before herself and was one of the most deserving recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize,” Professor Shadrack Gutto of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at the University of South Africa told Mail & Guardian on Monday.
Tireless in her fight against the destruction of forests across Africa and Kenya in the 1980s and 1990s, Maathai was often beaten and detained, most famously while campaigning against the industrialisation of natural land in Kenya.
In 1989, then-president Daniel arap Moi was forced to abandon a plan to erect an office tower in a Nairobi park on the back of protests by Maathai and her supporters.
In 1999, she was whipped and beaten by security forces during a protest against the commercial sale of natural vegetation in Nairobi.
“It’s a matter of life and death for this country. The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem,” Maathai once said.
A loss for Africa
The South African government described the death of Maathai as a great loss.
“Professor Maathai did a lot of work on this continent and for her country in putting environmental issues on the agenda. We extend our deepest condolences to her family, her party and the people of Kenya,” Department of International Relations and Cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela told M&G.
An emotional Gutto spoke fondly of the time he had spent with Maathai at the University of Nairobi where she worked as veterinary anatomy professor before entering a life of activism.
“I am very, very sad. She was a public intellectual of the highest order and a true African woman. So loving, caring, and unassuming, she really spoke to her people, unlike so many academics who are often aloof and un-engaging,” he added.
Although Maathai entered Kenya’s Parliament in 2003 as assistant environment and natural resources minister, Gutto said she was never a politician in the true sense of the word.
“She belongs in the league of Nelson Mandela. Someone who fought for others and never thought of herself, working tirelessly to advance the freedom and dignity of others without expecting anything in return.”
Green Belt issued a sombre statement on the passing of its founder.
“Her departure is untimely and a very great loss to all of us who knew her — as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine — or those who admired her determination to make the world a peaceful, healthy, and better place for all of us,” the statement said.
Greenpeace Africa said it was deeply saddened by Maathai’s death.
“It is a sadness we are sharing with people right across the African continent,” it said in a statement.
“She is an exemplary character in the environmental movement and her legacy will be felt by many future generations” said Anne Lamont, interim executive director for Greenpeace Africa. – Additional reporting by Reuters