Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai dies

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai attending a meeting at the Bella center of Copenhagen at the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference in 2009.</p>

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai attending a meeting at the Bella center of Copenhagen at the COP15 UN Climate Change Conference in 2009.

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, has died at age 71. A national hero in Kenya, she died late Sunday in Nairobi Hospital, where she had been privately battling ovarian cancer for the past year, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

Maathai won scholarships to study at Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s, then became the first woman in East Africa to earn a Ph.D. in 1971. She taught at the University of Nairobi, served in Kenya’s parliament and, in 1977, founded the Green Belt Movement, which over the past 30 years, has mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees, The Associated Press reports.

According to BBC News:

The straightforward environmental benefits of that would have been important enough on their own in a country whose population has grown more than 10-fold over the last century, creating huge pressure on land and water.

But what made the movement more remarkable was that it was also conceived as a source of employment in rural areas, and a way to give new skills to women who regularly came second to men in terms of power, education, nutrition and much else.

The Nobel committee awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004, noting that she had pursued her twin goals of improving the environment and advocating for social justice under the repressive regime of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, the AP reports.

According to the AP:

At least three times during her activist years she was physically attacked, including being clubbed unconscious by police during a hunger strike in 1992. The former president, arap Moi, once called Maathai "a mad woman" who was a threat to the security of Kenya.

Delivering the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s annual lecture in 2005, Maathai said, "We need people who love Africa so much that they want to protect her from destructive processes. There are simple actions we can take. Start by planting 10 trees we each need to absorb the carbon dioxide we exhale."

“She was a lady before her time, talking of how destruction of natural resources was a sign of something wrong in government, in the democratic process, and a threat to the security and peace of people all over the world,” Edward Wageni, deputy executive director of the Green Belt Movement, told the Christian Science Monitor. “She could see from her own life in rural Kenya that rivers drying up and trees being cut down directly affected people’s well-being. And that it needed strong activism to alert governments to that.”

Maathai's death "strikes at the core of our nation's heart,” Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga said, according to the AP. “Prof. Maathai has passed on just when the causes she long fought for were just beginning to get the attention they deserved as threats to the survival of the human race and that of our planet."

The Kenyan government is said to be considering setting aside several days of mourning for Maathai and honoring her in a state funeral, the Christian Science Monitor reports.