NAIROBI, Sep 26 – The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kenyan Wangari Maathai who died on Sunday, rose to prominence fighting for those most easily marginalised on the continent – poor women.
Honouring her in 2004, the Nobel awarding committee praised Maathai for taking “a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular.”
The first woman in East and Central Africa to win a doctorate, Maathai started her career as an environmental campaigner after planting some trees in her own back garden.
This inspired her in 1977 to form an organisation – comprised primarily of women – known as the Green Belt Movement to fight the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification.
She mobilised poor women to plant more than 30 million trees as part of a drive to produce sustainable wood for fuel use and to combat soil erosion.
One of few Kenyan women to invariably don traditional African dress of colourful wax fabric, Maathai, who died at the age of 71, smiles broadly on photos.
She studied biology in the US and after gaining her doctorate at Nairobi University, clocked up another first – becoming the first woman to teach there.
In her 2006 autobiography “Unbowed: One Woman’s Story,” Maathai recounts how climate patterns had ceased being predictable since her childhood on the slopes of Mount Kenya, a fact linked to climate change.
“At the time of my birth, the land around Ihithe was lush, green and fertile.”
“The seasons were so regular that you could almost predict that long monsoon rains could start falling in mid-March. In July you knew it could be foggy you would not be able to see 10 feet in front of you and so cold that the grass would be silvery white with frost,” she writes.
Touring Ihithe to launch her book in October 2006, Maathai told reporters: “But now the climate and the environment have changed … (and has become) unpredictable.”
She has told the BBC’s Africa Live programme that her tree planting campaign was far from popular when it first began.
“It took me a lot of days and nights to convince people that women could improve their environment without much technology or without much financial resources.”
The Green Belt Movement went on to campaign also on education, nutrition and other issues important to women.
While Maathai picked up numerous awards for her work to protect the environment, she was also beaten unconscious and arrested, often for campaigning against deforestation.
In the late 1980s, she became a prominent opponent of a skyscraper planned in the middle of the main park in the centre of Nairobi.
She was vilified by the government of then President Daniel arap Moi, but succeeded in thwarting the plans.
In 1997, she submitted to public pressure to run for President against Moi but did not take campaigning seriously and did not even release a manifesto.
Five years later, however, she made it into Parliament as part of an opposition coalition which swept to power after Moi stepped down. She was appointed deputy environment minister in 2003.
The Nobel Peace Prize committee praised her as “a source of inspiration for everyone in Africa fighting for sustainable development, democracy and peace”.
On the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme, where guests get to choose eight pieces of music, one book and one luxury item with which to be marooned on a deserted island, Maathai, a Christian, chose the Koran and a large basket of fruit.
Her musical choices ranged from Ave Maria to a hit from Benin singer Angelique Kidjo.
She is survived by three children and a granddaughter.
Her former husband, whom she divorced in the 1980s, was said to have remarked that Maathai was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”.