Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, died on Sunday night of cancer. She was 71.
A towering figure in Kenya, Maathai was renowned as a fearless social activist and an environmental crusader. Her Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, planted tens of millions of trees.
Maathai's death was confirmed in a statement on the movement's website.
"It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25 September 2011, at the Nairobi hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time."
I first read about this amazing woman's work maybe 10-12 years ago. She was not only a heroic figure in her native Kenya, but an inspiration to millions around the world. She was one of those unique people who was able to truly blend human rights efforts with environmental justice, to see the interconnectedness of it all.
Furthermore, she minced no words when it came to critiquing globalized capitalism, the great disparities between the "global north" and "global south," and also the ways in which those disparities lead to increased damage of the planet.
“We are very fond of blaming the poor for destroying the environment. But often it is the powerful, including governments, that are responsible.”
"The people at the top of the pyramid do not understand the limits to growth and they do not appreciate that they jeopardise the capacity of future generations to meet their own needs."
Personally, though, I found most attractive her ability to blend the social/political with the spiritual in a way that wasn't oppressive and demanding. Simple statements, like the following one, appear frequently in interviews with her, and her writings. And although the language is different from what I might use, I feel a resonance with what she says.
“All of us have a God in us, and that God is the spirit that unites all life, everything that is on this planet.”
Blessings to Wangari for being who she was. May she continue to inspire for generations to come.