Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, has died in hospital after a long struggle with cancer, her environmental organisation the Green Belt Movement said on Monday.
Maathai (71) who was also a veterinary anatomy professor, won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Maathai had to endure being whipped, tear-gassed and threatened with death for her devotion to Africa’s forests and her desire to end the corruption that spells their destruction.
“It’s a matter of life and death for this country,” Maathai once said. “The Kenyan forests are facing extinction and it is a man-made problem.”
She called the clearance of forests a “suicidal mission”.
“To interfere with them is to interfere with the rain system, the water system and therefore agriculture, not to mention the other industries dependent on hydro-electricity.”
In 1989, Maathai’s protests forced then-president Daniel arap Moi to abandon a plan to erect an office tower in a Nairobi park. In 1999, she was beaten and whipped by guards during a demonstration against the sale of forest land in Nairobi.
Role model, heroine
“It is with great sadness that the Green Belt Movement announces the passing of its founder and chair, Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, after a long illness bravely borne,” the organisation said in a statement on its website.
“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.
Tributes poured in on social media, and Kenyan television stations broadcast past interviews with Maathai.
“We join family and friends in mourning Professor Wangari Maathai, a phenomenal woman, a friend and role model. You lived, you inspired,” said Kenyan politician Martha Karua on her Twitter account.
Maathai’s Green Belt Movement has spread across the African continent and gone on to plant millions of trees around Africa in a campaign to slow deforestation and erosion.
Besides founding the Green Belt Movement, Maathai campaigned for civil and women’s rights and also served as a member of parliament.
“Rest in peace Dr Wangari Maathai. A great woman, an inspiration for many women across Africa, a magnificent visionary and embodiment of courage,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said in a Twitter message. – Reuters