Our World Lost an Angel; A Warrior for Mother Earth: Dr. Wangari Maathai

On Sunday, September 25 environmental activist Wangari Maathai (born 1, April 1940) passed away in a Nairobi Hospital after she lost her battle with ovarian cancer. Wangari has always been a woman that I looked up to. I first met her at a Nobel Women's Initiative reception a couple of years ago. This was a reception that brought together all six women Nobel laureates that include Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire. I had a great sense of calm and peacefulness when I met Wangari, she had this air to her that made me feel like I was in the presence of something great.

Maathai was born in Ihithe, Nyeri District where she first attended primary school. Later on she was one out of 300 granted a scholarship from Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation that made it possible for her and other Kenyans to continue their education in the United States. She first studied at Mount St. Scholastica College (now Benedictine College) in Atchison, Kansas. She continued her education at the University of Pittsburgh, and attained her master's degree in biology. She eventually got her PhD at the University of Nairobi in 1979.
Her great achievements extended beyond her educational and professional career.
With her ex-husband Mwangi Mathai, she has three children; Waweru, Muta and Wanjira, and one grandchild, Ruth Wangari.

Soon after Maathai completed her schooling, and started her family, she was at a loss of what to do next, like many other students. However, it wasn’t long before she founded the Kenya Green Belt Movement (1977). The Green belt Movement motivated Kenyan women to plant trees in order to counteract deforestation, and improve their livelihood.  Today, the Green Belt Movement is responsible for over 30 million thriving trees on the African continent with the help of over 900,000 local women.

Finally, after all the hard work and commitment Maathai invested into promoting environmentally friendly policies for a better future she was going to be rewarded. On October 8, 2004 Maathai received a call from Ole Danbolt Mjos, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. He informed her that she had won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee in a statement announcing her as the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner claimed that “Maathai stood up courageously against the former oppressive regime in Kenya. Her unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression—nationally and internationally. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.”

The Nobel Peace Prize was just one of her great achievements over the many years she dedicated to her career. Wangari Maathai is an inspiration to women like me, and many more across the globe.