Wangari Maathai Dies—First African Women to Win Nobel Peace Prize

dr wangari maathai“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”—Dr. Maathai, Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Wangari Maathai died on September 25th. As the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, she leaves behind a legacy that will continue to inspire peacebuilders throughout the world. Dr. Maathai is an example of what one person of vision can accomplish.

In 1977, she founded The Green Belt Movement with a mission to plant trees across Kenya. Her goal was twofold: to battle rampant erosion while creating jobs for women who gather firewood. Since its inception, her movement has planted more than 30 million trees in Africa and is responsible for helping over 900,000 women. Furthermore, it has led to similar efforts across Africa. When she was awarded the 2004 Peace Prize, the Nobel committee hailed “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.”

Labeled a “force of nature” by colleagues, Maathai was not deterred when the Kenyan president labeled her movement “subversive” back in the 1980s. Her resistance to government action would cause her to be beaten unconscious by police on at least one occasion. However, as that president stepped down after 24 years in power, Maathai assumed membership in Parliament and as an assistant minister on environmental issues.

Said to “speak truth to power,” she would lose her seat a few years later, and would be tear-gassed during a protest against her country’s political class.

When the Nobel committee presented her the Peace Prize they lauded her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular” and for serving “as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights.” As Maathai’s life shows, the role of peacebuilder is not for the faint of heart. It also demonstrates what is possible in the hands of one person of vision fueled by a passion for social justice and respect for our environment.

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