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Tribute to a true African heroine October 4, 2011

Posted by The Raise Project in Award Winners, Women in Science.

Mobhare Matinyi

The people of Africa and world citizens this week joined the people of Kenya in mourning the death of Professor Wangari Muta Maathai, 71, the first African woman to be honoured with the Noble Peace Prize.Prof Maathai lost her battle with ovarian cancer on Monday at Nairobi Hospital and is expected to be buried in non-wooden coffin as she pleaded back in 2004 after becoming a Nobel Laureate.

Her ultimate wish is a symbol of her life mission to protect the environment, the basis of her Green Belt Movement founded in 1977. The organisation planted approximately 30 million trees across Africa.

A phone call she received on October 8, 2004 from the chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Ole Danbolt Mjos, told her that the Committee had decided to honour her with the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, peace, human rights and women’s rights in particular.

The official citation in part read: “Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa. She thinks globally and acts locally.”

The citation also noted: “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.”

With those great words, Prof Maathai, who actually specialized in veterinary anatomy, an academic field that has nothing to do with plants or humanitarian work, entered the history books in her own style as an environmentalist and humanitarian activist.

A product of the Kennedy African Students Airlift of 1960, thanks to another Kenyan, Tom Mboya, and African American Students Foundation (AASF) for their efforts to secure the opportunity for 250 African students, Wangari left the United States in 1966 with a Master of Science in Biological Sciences from University of Pittsburgh.

In 1971 Wangari became the first East African woman to receive doctorate degree in veterinary anatomy from a programme sandwiched between German universities of Giessen and Munich and the University of Nairobi. She would later become the chair of the department of veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi and finally an associate professor in 1976.

Unfortunately, in 1979 Wangari was divorced by her husband, Mwangi Mathai, after a two-year battle in the court for bizarre allegations of her being ‘too tough to control’. While being interviewed, she was angered by the judge and said he was either incompetent or corrupt and was subsequently sent to jail for six months.

Luckily her lawyer won an appeal after three days, setting her free. The husband again filed a suit ordering her to drop his name Mathai, but she instead added an “a”.

Apart from serving the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK) tirelessly, Wangari also attempted to run for the parliamentary seat in 1982, but the government mischievously stopped her, and then got her fired from the university job.In her long struggle, she went through several arrests during President Daniel arap Moi’s regime and failed in her dream to unite opposition parties during the 1992 and 1997 elections.

After battling the oppressive regime, finally in 2002 Prof Maathai won election by 98 percent without stealing a single vote in Tetu constituent. In 2003 President Mwai Kibaki, appointed her Assistant Minister for Environment, Natural Resources and Wildlife until 2005. She lost reelection in 2007.

Prof Maathai will also be remembered for conducting a campaign to prevent the construction of the 60-storey building at Uhuru Park in 1989 despite being called by the government a “crazy woman.”

Moi even said Wangari and her supporters had ‘insects in their heads’ and urged her to behave like an African woman in front of men and be quiet. Under pressure from the United Kingdom, Moi’s government dropped the project.

In 1992 she led a hunger strike at Uhuru Park demanding all political prisoners be released, ending up being beaten severely by police and hospitalized. Again, Moi called her a “mad woman” and a “threat to the order and security of the country”. Pressure from the US helped to secure the release of prisoners and dismissal of her charges.

Although she avoided the limelight, Prof Maathai did quite a lot in seven decades of her life as if she had lived for seven centuries. She served as a board member of the United Nations Advisory Board on Disarmament, UN Commission on Global Governance, and was a member of eight international nongovernmental organisations. She also received a total of 30 international awards and four honorary doctorates.

Prof Maathai, born on April 1, 1940, leaves behind three adult children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta and one grandchild. Unquestionably, Prof Maathai died as the most respected Kenyan in history.





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