First African Nobel Peace Prize Winner Dies

After a long battle with cancer, Wangari Maathai died at age 71. As one of Kenya's most recognizable female figures, she won the Nobel in 2004 for combining environmentalism and social activism. She spent over 30 years mobilizing women to plant 30 million trees in the Green Belt Movement.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: And now we have a remembrance to share. Wangari Maathai was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She died after a long battle with cancer. She was 71. Maathai was from Kenya and considered that country's most recognizable woman because of her environmental work, most notably planting trees. She founded the Green Belt Movement, a campaign to plant millions of trees.

Maathai was equally well known for her social activism. Her desire to see fewer trees removed and more planted, led to a face-off against Kenya's elite. At least three times during her activist years she was physically attacked. Those are the causes that won her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. And after learning of the honor, her first response was to plant a tree.

WANGARI MAATHAI: When I want to celebrate I always plant a tree. And so I got an indigenous tree called nandi flame. It has these beautiful red flowers. When it is in flower it is like it is inflame.

LYDEN: The move to industrialize Kenya ignited Maathai's passions. She'd watch as forests were cleared away to make room for commercial enterprise. That, in her view, was highly irresponsible government because destroying forest also meant degrading the capacity of forest to conserve water.

LAURA RENA MURRAY: Earlier this year, a devastating drought that the east African region, known as the Horn of Africa, and it's caused a food shortage that has left more than 12 million people starving. The crisis led United Nations to declare a famine in July. Many refugees have fled to Kenya in hopes of relief, but the overcrowding, lawlessness and abuse are making things worse.

LYDEN: Just last month, Wangari Maathai spoke with this program about the crisis and the humanitarian response.

MAATHAI: I would also wish that the international community which now head the campaign to support, will have a follow-up campaign to make sure that these things are prevented from coming.

Because they are predictable and they are foreseeable. But maybe the United Nations needs to have a mechanism that even wakes up local government, the national governments and reminds them that you are going to have a problem in this area. But in the final analysis, I can tell you that the responsibility of serving people (unintelligible) with a government, with a national government, they can be supported international and thank everybody for their support. But I think it is extremely important for national governments to be accountable to their people and to do what they can for their people, and save them from such tragedies as we have seen now here in east Africa.

LYDEN: Wangari Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in east Africa, in 1971, from the University of Nairobi.

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LYDEN: She also authored four books, including "The Challenge for Africa" and "Replenishing the Earth." A former member of Kenya's parliament, Maathai is being remembered by world dignitaries, as well as Kenyans who planted trees with her as schoolchildren. Wangari Maathai passed away on Sunday. She was 71 years old.

You've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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