First African Woman To Win Nobel Peace Prize Dies

The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, has died while undergoing treatment for cancer. Maathai was an environmentalist and human rights campaigner who was arrested, imprisoned and beaten for her efforts in Kenya. She was 71. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton talks to Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

Tributes have been pouring in from all over the world. The first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize has died. Kenyan environmentalist and rights' campaigner Wangari Maathai died late last night in Nairobi, during treatment for cancer. She was 71.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this remembrance.

OFEIBEA QUIST: Wangari Maathai began life in the rural highlands of Kenya, then a British colony, surrounded by nature which became her lifelong passion and profession. She remembered a happy village childhood with her siblings and their farmer parents, with no refrigerators or other modern conveniences.

It was her mother who taught Maathai to value the environment, she said, which led to her struggle in later years and the creation of her Green Belt Movement to fight the effects of deforestation as she told NPR in 2004.

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WANGARI MAATHAI: When I first started, which was in mid-1970s, I was responding to needs of rural women. Their issues were clean drinking water, firewood, wood to build their shelters and they needed nutritious food. And everything that they were asking for, I connected to the environment.

QUIST: Maathai led a two-pronged struggle for sustainable environmental development and for social justice, peace and equality. She became a prominent human rights campaigner in Kenya during one protest against the clearing of a forest to build luxury homes.

Maathai grabbed the headlines when she signed the police report in her own blood. She was also deeply involved in the campaign for multiparty democracy in Kenya, which meant trouble as she told WHYY's Fresh Air.

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MAATHAI: People in power quite often do not want life to be exposed and especially if they are dictators or if they are corrupt. And the minute we started exposing the mismanagement of the resources and the corruption in the system, we found ourselves in trouble.

QUIST: The indominitable Maathai was pistol-whipped by security guards when she took on powerful business and political lobbies. She spent time in prison in Kenya. After studies in biological sciences, she became the first Kenyan woman to earn a doctorate. A dedicated university professor, she was eventually elected to parliament and appointed a deputy Cabinet minister.

In 2004, the Nobel Committee recognized Maathai's collective environmental and peace and democracy campaign work and named her a Nobel Peace Laureate.

MAATHAI: As the first African woman to receive this prize, I accept it on behalf of the people of Kenya and Africa and, indeed, the whole world.

QUIST: As she headed to Oslo, Norway for the award ceremony, Maathai told NPR's Renee Montagne the first thing she did when she first learned she'd won the Nobel Peace Prize was to walk outside and plant a tree.

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MAATHAI: That's the way I do things when I want to celebrate. I always plant a tree.

QUIST: With her Green Belt Movement, Wangari Maathai and many others planted more than 40 million trees in 30 years.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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BLOCK: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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