Along with millions of Kenyans and indeed many millions more people worldwide, the Forum heard the tragic news early this morning that the Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize winner, Wangari Maathai, died last night in Nairobi Hospital. She was 71 years old and had been undergoing treatment for cancer.
Wangari Maathai is best known as an environmental and political activist. It was a result her active campaigning in these areas that Maathai became the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government. The Peace Prize was but one of over 50 awards however, albeit the most prestigious, that Wangari Maathai received in her lifetime.
Wangari Maathai was born on 1st April, 1940, in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri district. She studied at the Mount St. Scholastica in the United States and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi.
She went on to become a veterinary anatomy professor but rose to international fame for her leading role in campaigns against government-backed forest clearances in Kenya in the late 1980s and 1990s (she branded the clearances a political ploy that would cause irreversible environmental damage) and also served as a member of parliament from 2002 to 2007.
Wangari Maathai’s passion for conservation and the environment prompted her to form the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, nutrition and women’s rights, into which she poured all her efforts. The Movement expanded throughout Africa leading to the foundation of the Pan-African Green Belt Network.
In her acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai said she hoped her own success would spur other women on to a more active role in the community. This she achieved, inspiring not just women but many men as well, and particularly young people.
SOME TRIBUTES TO WANGARI MAATHAI
During the day the Forum has received many tributes to Wangari Maathai.
Jacob wrote that, ‘She showed great courage and strength of character in fighting for environment conservation… we will truly miss her!’ and Stacy declared, ‘She was like mama Africa, she will live in the hearts of many despite completing her mission on this earth!’
Daniel, one of Prof. Wangari Maathai’s former students, wrote, ‘The Generation that destroys the environment is usually not the generation that pays the price… she lived in the worst of times and made the best of it….RIP iconic lady!’
And Edwin said that she had proved, ‘That you don’t need special favours to make it in life; that you don’t need special seats in parliament to make a difference in Kenyans’ lives; that you don’t have to insist on being treated special just because you bear a different anatomy to that of men. RIP Maathai. Plant a tree in memory of Wangari. And read her books!’
AN INSPIRATIONAL LEADER, PARTICULARLY TO YOUNG KENYANS
It is significant that in a poll of over 3,300 young Kenyans published in 2010 by The Young Kenyan Leader, in which 14 to19 year-olds were asked to vote for who they considered to be the most ‘inspirational leader’, Wangari Maathai came third out of over 230 nominations, just behind Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama, one place ahead of Jomo Kenyatta and ahead of Mother Theresa of Calcutta and Dr Martin Luther King.
The Young Kenyans were also asked to say why they had voted for a particular leader. Their comments about Wangari Maathai give some idea as to the impact she had made on these Kenyans from all areas of the country, all backgrounds, boys and girls.
Safiya Abdulrahman wrote; ‘Wangare Maathai is my role model because she is fighting against destroying our environment which brings a beautiful scene’ and Obadiah Masila wrote, ‘People just talk about development and never do it, but she not only talked about it she was doing it practically’.
For Zoka Bernice it was, ‘Her determination and commitment towards improving our status’ that had inspired her, and Rahul Puri wrote, ‘I adore Wangari for her firm belief in going green and she has a bright spark of determination’.
It was perhaps Faith Jerono who summed up her legacy, the legacy she wanted, to inspire others to action and leadership. Faith wrote, ‘She fought for conservation of the environment as a way of developing the country, thus making me get inspired in fighting for peace by considering her success’.
The Forum says not only Kenya but the World has lost an icon but she also leaves a legacy of inspiration that is unmatched.
The Forum welcomes tributes to Wangari Maathai from readers which we will endeavour to publish.