Kenyan Dr. Wangari Maathai, the first woman from Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize, and the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold a PhD, died late Sunday night after a battle with cancer. She was 71. She is survived by three children and one grandchild. Her death was a surprise to many.
Maathi is one of my most revered environmental and human rights heroines. Her beautiful, beaming face and many pictures and posters flank my office walls. I have read all of her books with deep fascination--especially her autobiography, Unbowed-- a story of tremendous courage, adversity and triumph. As a woman in a very patriarchal society, Maathi battled for her every achievement.
Maathi selflessly fought for the earth and the rights of women and children throughout her lifetime. Her Green Belt Movement helped to restore ravaged landscapes and has saved countless lives. The millions of trees women planted (yes, Maathi started her movement as a means to help the land and women and children), helped to restore soil quality (for farming and otherwise) and also provided firewood (fuel) for cooking, water, and heat. Maathi showed the world that planting trees is both empowering for women and it is good for the earth. So far, The Greenbelt Movement has planted over 40 million trees.
It wasn't always easy for Maathi. Not one bit. A brilliant and highly educated woman was not welcomed in her culture--not at first. During her lifetime, Maathi was brutally beaten by police, jailed, and she went through a nasty divorce with a husband who admitted to being quite displeased with her strength. Maathi wore a lot of hats--scientist, professor, mother, activist, environmentalist, writer, politician. She was and is a role model to all women everywhere.
In my teaching on environmentalism (I'm a professor of English, Sustainability, and Women's Studies), we read a lot of depressing information about environmental degradation, and about how human beings are driven to poverty and despair as a result of the ravaging of our earth and natural resources. In order to help my students learn that it is possible to successfully combat environmental degradation, in one of our class assignments, I ask that my students create research and presentation projects on an environmental hero. Of course, Maathi is one of the most important figures in this group of eco-warriors.
It is for this reason my office walls are covered with posters and pieces of art with Maathi's words, photographs, and images. These student projects are a testament to Maathi's strength, inspiration, and power.
She will be missed.
We should all plant trees in her honor.
To hear and see Maathi speak, watch here: http://greenbeltmovement.org/w.php?id=93
To learn more about Maathi, her life and work, see her Greenbelt Movement site: http://www.greenbeltmovement.org/w.php?id=59
Published originally at TerraSpheres: http://www.terraspheres.com/blogs/wangari-maathi-eco-warrior-and-human-rights-acivist-dies