Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, 71
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, October 2011:
Wangari Maathai, 71, winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize, died of cancer on September 24, 2011, in Nairobi, Kenya.
Maathai “won a scholarship to study biology at Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas, receiving a degree in 1964,” wrote New York Times obituarist Jeffrey Gettleman. “She earned a master of science degree from the University of Pitts-burgh. She went on to obtain a doctorate in veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi, becoming the first woman in East or Central Africa to hold such a degree,” Gettleman continued.
Maathai taught veterinary anatomy at the University of Nairobi for many years, while becoming increasingly active in environmental and social justice causes.
“Her quest to see fewer trees felled and more planted saw her face off against Kenya’s powerful elite,” recalled Jason Straziuso and Tom Odula of Associated Press. “At least three times she was physically attacked, including being clubbed unconscious by police during a hunger strike in 1992. In the summer of 1998,” Straziuso and Odula continued, “the Kenyan government was giving land to political allies in a protected forest on Nairobi’s outskirts. Maathai began a campaign to reclaim the land, culminating in a confrontation with 200 hired thugs armed with machetes and bows and arrows. When Maathai tried to plant a tree, she and her cohorts were attacked with whips, clubs and stones. Maathai received a bloody gash on her head,” but the incident was the beginning of the end for the 30-year regime of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, and inspired the United Nations Environmental Program’s Billion Tree Campaign. Since 2006 the UNEP program has helped to plant 11 billion trees.
“A true heroine and a champion of animal welfare, wildlife and environmental conservation, she was a great inspiration to many of us,” e-mailed Africa Network for Animal Welfare founder Josphat Ngonyo to ANIMAL PEOPLE. Illness prevented Maathai from attending the September 2010 Africa Animal Action conference in Nairobi, organized by ANAW, but she sent a statement that was read aloud to the delegates.
“As environmentalists whose main preoccupation has been to rehabilitate and conserve natural habits and landscapes, we have placed the welfare of animals at the center of our thinking and work,” Maathai said. “We humans share a strong evolutionary link with animalsŠPoverty, underdevelopment, and ostensibly other urgent issues may make us neglect the welfare of animals. But that is precisely why you have all convened at this conference–so that we can all remind ourselves of the important responsibility we share towards ensuring that animals are treated humanely.”
Maathai often told about a hummingbird who carried one drop of water at a time to fight a forest fire. Asked by an elephant why she was wasting her energy, instead of fleeing, the hummingbird responded, “I’m doing the best I can.” Said Maathai, “That to me is what all of us should do. I will be a hummingbird. I will do the best I can.”