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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Wangari was the first black African woman to win a Nobel Prize.


Wangari Muta Mary Jo Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011) was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was educated in the United States at Mount St. Scholastica and the University of Pittsburgh, as well as the University of Nairobi in Kenya. In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on the planting of trees, environmental conservation, and women's rights. In 1986, she was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, and in 2004, she became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for "her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace." Maathai was an elected member of Parliament and served as assistant minister for Environment and Natural Resources in the government of President Mwai Kibaki between January 2003 and November 2005. In 2011, Maathai died of complications from ovarian cancer.

On 1 April 1940, Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, Nyeri District, in the central highlands of the colony of Kenya, then part of the British Empire.Her family were Kikuyu, the most populous ethnic group in Kenya, and had lived in the area for several generations.Around 1943, Maathai's family relocated to a white-owned farm in the Rift Valley, near the town of Nakuru, where her father had found work. Late in 1947, she returned to Ihithe with her mother, as two of her brothers were attending primary school in the village, and there was no schooling available on the farm where her father worked. Her father remained at the farm.Shortly afterward, at the age of eight, she joined her brothers at Ihithe Primary School.

At age eleven, Maathai moved to St. Cecilia's Intermediate Primary School, a boarding school at the Mathari Catholic Mission in Nyeri.Maathai studied at St. Cecilia's for four years. During this time, she became fluent in English and converted to Catholicism, taking the Christian name Mary Josephine. She also was involved with the Christian society known as the Legion of Mary, whose members attempted "to serve God by serving fellow human beings."Studying at St. Cecilia's, Maathai was sheltered from the ongoing Mau Mau Uprising, which forced her mother to move from their homestead to an emergency village in Ihithe.When she completed her studies there in 1956, she was rated first in her class, and was granted admission to the only Catholic high school for girls in Kenya, Loreto High School Limuru in Limuru.

After graduating from Loreto-Limuru in 1959, she planned to attend the University of East Africa in Kampala, Uganda. However, the end of the colonial period of East Africa was nearing, and Kenyan politicians, such as Tom Mboya, were proposing ways to make education in Western nations available to promising students. John F. Kennedy, then a United States Senator, agreed to fund such a program through the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, initiating what became known as the Kennedy Airlift or Airlift Africa. Maathai became one of about three hundred Kenyans chosen to study at American universities in September 1960.

Maathai and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, separated in 1977. After a lengthy separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was "too strong-minded for a woman" and that he was "unable to control her". In addition to naming her as "cruel" in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi's favour. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Maathai referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt.The interview later led the judge to charge Maathai with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang'ata Women's Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer formulated a statement which the court found sufficient for her release. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Maathai drop his surname but she instead chose to add an extra "a" instead.

The divorce had been costly, and with lawyers' fees and the loss of her husband's income, Maathai found it difficult to provide for herself and her children on her university wages. An opportunity arose to work for the Economic Commission for Africa through the United Nations Development Programme. As this job required extended travel throughout Africa and was based primarily in Lusaka, Zambia, she was unable to bring her children with her. Maathai chose to send them to her ex-husband and take the job. While she visited them regularly, they lived with their father until 1985.

On 8 October 2004, Maathai received a call from Ole Danbolt Mjos, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, informing her that she was the recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.She became the first African woman, and the first environmentalist, to win the prize.
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. She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.

In June 2009, Maathai was named as one of PeaceByPeace.com's first peace heroes.Until her death, Maathai served on the Eminent Advisory Board of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa (AWEPA).Wangari Maathai died of complications arising from ovarian cancer while receiving treatment at a Nairobi hospital on 25 September 2011.

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