The Nobel Peace Prize-winning environmentalist activist Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer on Sunday at the age of 71. Her story is one of a woman both rewarded and reviled for her efforts to change her country and the world.
The Times reports that Maathai distinguished herself early, becoming the first East African woman to earn a doctorate. Later she founded the Green Belt movement, in which women planted trees throughout her native Kenya to forestall erosion and provide much-needed firewood. Says Maathai in the above trailer for the documentary Taking Root, "When the women started, nobody was bothering them because nobody took them seriously. Who takes women seriously? Then the government realized that we were organizing women, so they started interfering with our organizing." Maathai was beaten by police and belittled by then-president Daniel Arap Moi. Her husband divorced her, "saying she was too strong-minded for a woman." But in 2002, Moi stepped down and Maathai was elected to parliament. And in 2005, she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. That year, she talked to Mother Jones about some of the bigotry she'd suffered:
I think that because I was a woman, I was vulnerable. It was easy to persecute me without people feeling ashamed. It was easy to vilify me and project me as a woman who was not following the tradition of a "good African woman" and as a highly educated elitist who was trying to show innocent African women ways of doing things that were not acceptable to African men. It was easy for me to be ridiculed and for both men and women to perceive that maybe I'm a bit crazy because I'm educated in the West and I have lost some of my basic decency as an African woman — as if being educated was something bad.
Maathai is survived by three children and one grandchild, as well as by the Green Belt Movement, which is still going strong.
Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Dies At 71 [NYT]