Wangari Maathai, the first African woman recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, died after a long struggle with cancer, the environmental organization she founded said Monday. She was 71.
One of Kenya’s most recognizable women, Maathai won the Nobel in 2004 for combining environmentalism and social activism. She was the founder of the Green Belt Movement, where over 30 years she mobilized poor women to plant 30 million trees.
Edward Wageni, that group’s deputy executive director, said Maathai died in a Nairobi hospital late Sunday. Maathai was in and out of the hospital since the beginning of the year, he said.
In recognizing Maathai, the Nobel committee said that she had stood up to a former oppressive regime in Kenya and that her “unique forms of action have contributed to drawing attention to political oppression.”
Maathai said during her 2004 acceptance speech that the inspiration for her life work came from her childhood experiences in rural Kenya, where she witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.
Although the Green Belt Movement’s tree planting campaign did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it become clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.
“Therefore, the tree became a symbol for the democratic struggle in Kenya. Citizens were mobilized to challenge widespread abuses of power, corruption and environmental mismanagement,” Maathai said.
Tributes poured out for Maathai online, including from Kenyans who remember planting trees alongside her as schoolchildren. One popular posting on Twitter noted that Maathai’s knees always seemed to be dirty from showing VIPs how to plant trees. Another poster, noting Nairobi’s cloudy skies Monday, said: “No wonder the sun is not shining today.”
A long time friend and fellow professor at the University of Nairobi, Vertistine Mbaya said that Maathai showed the world how important it is to have and demonstrate courage.
“The values she had for justice and civil liberties and what she believed were the obligations of civil society and government,” Mbaya said. “She also demonstrated the importance of recognizing the contributions that women can make and allowing them the open space to do so.”
A former member of Kenya’s parliament, Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa — in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later was an associate professor in the department of veterinary anatomy. She previously earned degrees from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas and the University of Pittsburgh.
Maathai first latched on to the idea of widespread tree planting while serving as the chairwoman of the National Council of Women in Kenya during the 1980s.
The Green Belt Movement, which was founded in 1977, said on its website that Maathai’s death was a great loss to those who “admired her determination to make the world a more peaceful, healthier and better place.”
Maathai is survived by her three children. Funeral arrangements were to be announced soon, the Green Belt Movement said.