As I searched for quotes by Maathai on the Internet, I came across one that says “African women in general need to know that it’s OK for them to be the way they are – to see the way they are as a strength, and to be liberated from fear and from silence.” For me, this is the quote that resonates most with Maathai’s life that defied the patriarchal values of our global village.
In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman to receive the coveted Nobel Peace Prize “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In her acceptance speech of the prize, in Oslo, Norway she said: “As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa, and indeed the world. I am especially mindful of women and the girl child. I hope it will encourage them to raise their voices and take more space for leadership. I know the honour also gives a deep sense of pride to our men, both old and young. As a mother, I appreciate the inspiration this brings to the youth and urge them to use it to pursue their dreams.” She indeed became a role model and inspiration to many women and men on the African continent and beyond.
Maathai received several other international awards. In April 2009, she received Japan's highest honour, the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun. Maathai's campaign, which stresses the concept of reduce, re-use, recycle and repair for environmental protection made her popular in Japan. In 2010, she received the International Freedom Award from National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennesse with two other women, actress Eva Longoria and civil rights pioneer Dorothy Cotton.
Despite her international fame and influence, she continued to be humble, accessible and a staunch defender of the down trodden and the environment.
Kenyans will always remember Maathai for storming Karura Forest in 1999 on the outskirts of Nairobi, to lead environmentalists and human rights activists to stop the grabbing and destruction of the forest. The former University of Nairobi professor had to face off with riot policemen who lobbed tear gas at her and physically plucked off her dreadlocks in the full glare of the media.
In another incident, she filed a case against the then president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi for his plans to hive off a chunk of Nairobi’s Uhuru Park to build a 30-storey building to house the headquarters of his party.
One big footprint she leaves behind is the Green Belt Movement - a women’s civil society organisation established in 1971 that among others advocates for human rights, supports good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment. The project has planted more than 40 million trees in Africa and is now a vehicle for empowering women. Faced with the challenges of global climate change, the project acknowledges the role that women can play in averting the effects of global warming. It thus encourages women to partake in decisions about the environment and to play a part in conservation efforts. The goal of the project in the next decade is to plant one billion trees worldwide.
As a result of her firm belief that environmental issues are intrinsic to good governance, Maathai also became actively involved in democracy and political processes. In 1997 she ran for parliament and the presidency under the Liberal Party ticket but she lost the election. In 2002, she contested the elections under the National Rainbow Coalition. This time she won and President Mwai Kibaki appointed her Assistant Minister for Environment and Natural Resources.
As a gender activist,Maathai chaired the National Council of Women from 1981 to 1987. She addressed the UN on several occasions and spoke on behalf of women at special sessions of the General Assembly. Maathai served on the boards of several organisations including the United Nations Secretary General’s Advisory Board on Disarmament.
Maathai obtained a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. She subsequently earned a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966), making her the first Kenyan woman to graduate with a Masters degree in biological sciences. In 1971, she obtained a PhD from the University of Nairobi also making her the first woman in Africa to get a doctorate on the subject. She taught veterinary anatomy at the university.
Even in her grave, Maathai carried the green flag as she had asked not to be buried in a wooden coffin.
Maathai’s legacy lives on in the Green Belt Movement whose mandate is to respond to needs identified by rural women, such as lack of firewood, clean water, balanced diet, shelter and income.
As we battle climate change, let us remember this remarkable woman who saw in the environmental disasters that engulf us an opportunity for the empowerment of women and the chance to promote peace in the world. We celebrate Maathai for advocating a better Africa and a better world.
Odhiambo Orlale is a media consultant in Kenya. This obituary is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service, bringing you fresh views on everyday news.