In Memoriam: Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011)

Nobel laureate Wangari Mathaai of Kenya passed away last night on September 25, 2011, after a long battle with cancer. Prof. Mathaai was an institution herself—waging war against corruption, the abuse of human rights and being at the forefront of the democratization movement in Kenya. Her commitment to reform rightfully earned her the title of the ‘mother of the second liberation’. But it is her unrelenting commitment to the environment for which she will forever be remembered. As founder of the Greenbelt Movement, Mathaai mobilized Kenyan communities to plant trees in what was fast becoming a wasteland. It is because of her work on environmental preservation that she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, a first for an African woman.

Growing up at a time when women were largely relegated to the periphery, and coming from a humble family in Central Kenya, Mathaai’s achievements are unparalleled. She confronted the male dominated institutions with courage and determination. She was the first East African woman to earn a doctorate in veterinary anatomy and later became a professor at the University of Nairobi. Maathai served in many capacities—head of the Kenya’s premier women organization, a member of the Kenya’s Parliament, an assistant Minister, among other positions.

Wa Maathai—as many Kenyans referred to her—was indeed ahead of her time in thinking about climate change and its effect on livelihoods. She opposed the government’s encroachments of public lands and, especially, the allocation of forest land to individuals. She became an unrelenting voice against large development plans that would have otherwise adversely impacted on the environment. But she paid a huge price for her efforts and was often humiliated in public with some leaders referring to her as “that mad woman.” However, she persevered and even her critics came to admire and support her vision.

With the passing of Prof. Maathai, Kenya has lost a great citizen. Africa, and indeed the world, has lost a great visionary. Her contribution to the preservation of the environment is a gift that Kenyans will enjoy for generations to come. Without a doubt, wonderfully worded tributes will be sent to Kenyans and her family from leaders all over the world, yet I cannot imagine any more meaningful tribute by Africans than what would have made this great lady smile: PLANT A TREE TODAY!