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Kenyan heroine Wangari Maathai dies in hospital

NAIROBI, Kenya Sep 26 – Kenyan environmentalist and the 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner Wangari Muta Maathai has died while undergoing treatment at the Nairobi Hospital.

Her Personal Assistant Lucy Wanjohi said Maathai succumbed to ovarian cancer, for which she was being treated. She was diagnosed with the cancer last year.

“She passed on at 11 pm last night after a long battle with cancer. She has been in and out of hospital several times now. It is very sad that she has left us,” Wanjohi told Capital News on telephone on Monday morning.

She later sent a statement saying: “The 25th of September 2011 is a day of great sadness as we the family announce the passing away of our dear mom, Wangari Maathai, at The Nairobi Hospital after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer.”

The official website of the Greenbelt Movement posted a tribute to her on Monday morning saying; “Maathai’s departure is untimely and a very great loss to all who knew her-as a mother, relative, co-worker, colleague, role model, and heroine; or who admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier and better place.”

Maathai leaves behind three children Waweru, Wanjira, Muta and a granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

“They are truly very grateful for all the prayers and support they have received,” the movement which she founded in 1977 said.

“Further information on how Maathai’s life will be celebrated, where to share memories and condolences, and how to join us to build her legacy for generations to come will be provided shortly.”

The 71-year-old political activist is well known for her constant battles with the government to protect Kenya’s forests from grabbers, mainly high-ranking officials.

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She was vocal with her Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organisation focused on planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women’s rights in the country.

“Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do,” she once said and warned that: “You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them, and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them.”

In 1984, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Maathai was an elected Member of Parliament and served as an Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources in President Mwai Kibaki’s government between January 2003 and November 2005.

The late Maathai was born in Ihithe, near Nyeri, in the Central Highlands of Kenya on April 1, 1940.

At a time when most Kenyan girls were not educated, she went to school at the instigation of her elder brother, Nderitu, according to information available on her personal website.

Principally taught by Catholic missionary nuns, she graduated from Loreto Girls’ High School in 1959.

The following year she was part of the “Kennedy airlift,” a scholarship program of the US government and the Kennedy family that took her to Mount St Scholastica (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas, where she completed a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences.

In 1966 she earned a Master’s degree at the University of Pittsburgh.

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She was to later return the same year to a newly independent Kenya, and soon after joined the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi.

In 1971 she received a PhD, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to get the prestigious academic achievement.

She became the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi and the first to be appointed a professor.

In the 1970s Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organisations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK).

Through her work representing women academics in the NCWK, she spoke to rural women and learned from them about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans-especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce, and nutritious food was limited.

Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture.

This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilised hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.

As GBM’s work expanded, Maathai realised that behind poverty and environmental destruction were deeper issues of disempowerment, bad governance, and a loss of the values that had enabled communities to sustain their land and livelihoods, and what was best in their cultures. The planting of trees became an entry-point for a larger social, economic, and environmental agenda.

In the 1980s and 1990s the Green Belt Movement joined with other pro-democracy advocates to press for an end to the abuses of the dictatorial regime of then Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi.

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Maathai initiated campaigns that halted the construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi, and stopped the grabbing of public land in Karura Forest.

She is also remembered for leading a year-long vigil with the mothers of political prisoners who even stripped to compel the government to release to freedom some 51 men held at the time by the Kenyan government.

As a consequence of these and other advocacy efforts, Maathai and GBM staff and colleagues were repeatedly beaten, jailed, harassed, and publicly vilified and ridiculed by the Moi regime.

Maathai’s fearlessness and persistence resulted in her becoming one of the best-known and most respected women in Kenya. Internationally, she also gained recognition for her courageous stand for the rights of people and the environment.

Maathai’s commitment to a democratic Kenya never faltered. In December 2002, in the first free-and-fair elections in her country for a generation, she was elected as Member of Parliament for Tetu, a constituency close to where she grew up.

And in 2003 President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Assistant Minister for the Environment in the new government.

Maathai brought GBM’s strategy of grassroots empowerment and commitment to participatory, transparent governance to the Ministry of Environment and the management of Tetu’s constituency development fund (CDF).

As an MP, she emphasised reforestation, forest protection, and the restoration of degraded land; education initiatives, including scholarships for those orphaned by HIV/AIDS; and expanded access to voluntary counselling and testing (VCT) as well as improved nutrition for those living with HIV/AIDS.

In the violence that followed the disputed 2007 General election in Kenya which is now subject of a protracted legal battle at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Maathai served as a mediator and a critical voice for peace, accountability, and justice.

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In addition, she and GBM were instrumental in ensuring that the new Kenyan Constitution, ratified by a public vote in 2010, included the right of all citizens to a clean and healthy environment, and that the Constitution’s drafting was truly consultative.

In 2004 Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for sustainable development, democracy, and peace-the first African woman and the first environmentalist to receive this honour.

In announcing the award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said “ Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”

It praised the “holistic approach” of her work and called her “a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent.”

In 2006 Maathai co-founded the Nobel Women’s Initiative with five of her fellow women peace laureates to advocate for justice, equality, and peace worldwide.

In recent years, Maathai played an increasingly important role in global efforts to address climate change, specifically by advocating for the protection of indigenous forests and the inclusion of civil society in policy decisions.

In 2005 ten Central African Governments appointed her the goodwill ambassador for the Congo Basin rainforest and that same year she accepted the position of presiding officer of the African Union’s Economic, Social, and Cultural Council (ECOSOCC).

In 2006 Maathai joined with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to launch a campaign to plant a billion trees around the world.

That goal was met in less than a year; the target now stands at 14 billion. In 2007 Maathai became co-chair (with former Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin) of the Congo Basin Forest Fund, an initiative of the British and Norwegian governments, and in 2009 she was designated a United Nations messenger of peace by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

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In 2010, Maathai became a trustee of the Karura Forest Environmental Education Trust.

That same year, in partnership with the University of Nairobi, she established the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies (WMI).

The WMI will bring together academic research- in land use, forestry, agriculture, resource-based conflicts, and peace studies – with the Green Belt Movement approach and members of the organization. Through sharing their experiences, academics and those working at the grassroots will learn from and educate each other on the linkages between livelihoods and ecosystems.

Honours received by Maathai

Those bestowed on her by governments include: the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan, 2009), the Legion D’Honneur (France, 2006), and Elder of the Golden Heart and Elder of the Burning Spear (Kenya, 2004, 2003).

Maathai also received awards from many organizations and institutions throughout the world, including: the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights (2007), the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Lifetime Achievement Award (2006), the Sophie Prize (2004), the Goldman Prize (1991), the Right Livelihood Award (1984); and honorary doctorates from Yale University and Morehouse College in the US, Ochanomizu University in Japan, and the University of Norway, among others.

She has extensively published to share her perspectives mainly on the environmental sector through publications such as The Green Belt Movement, The Approach and the Experience (2003), which charts the organization’s development and methods, Unbowed (2006).

Her autobiography The Challenge for Africa (2008), examines the social, economic, and political bottlenecks that have held back the continent’s development, and provides a manifesto for change.

She has also published Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010) which explores the values that underpin the Green Belt Movement and suggests how they can be applied.

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