In Memory of Wangari Maathai

Kenyan Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai passed away on Sunday night after struggling with cancer at the age of 71 in Nairobi. One of the most celebrated women on the continent, Dr. Maathai was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree in 1971. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organization that focuses on women’s rights, environmentalism, and poverty reduction by planting trees. The Green Belt Movement has planted over 40 million trees in Africa and helped nearly 900,000 women. In addition, Wangari was the inspiration behind UNEP’s Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched in 2006. More than 11 billion trees have been planted to date as part of the campaign by inspiring people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities.

Wangari Maatahi became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. In addition to her community work, Dr. Maathai served as a member of Kenyan Parliament and as the Assistant Minister on Environmental Issues. Wangari was widely regarded in Kenya as a ‘force of nature.’ She faced threats and physical violence throughout her life for her outspoken dedication to human rights, justice, and environmentalism- views which often conflicted with Kenya’s patriarchal and notoriously corrupt political system.

In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dr. Maathai said that the inspiration for her work came from growing up in rural Kenya. She fondly recalled a stream from her childhood that ran 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.”

Wangari Maathai will be deeply missed and forever remembered as a champion of the people of Kenya.