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Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai: A Global Icon Of Conservation

When Wangari Maathai celebrated something important — such as becoming the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize — she would plant a tree.

"That's the way I do things," she told NPR's Renee Montagne in 2004. A tree, especially a flaming red Nandi, would be a living memory. And it would bring life to some of the world's barren lands.

Maathai died of cancer Sunday in a Nairobi hospital. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her work promoting environmental stewardship, empowering women and peaceful resistance to violence.

Now might be a time to plant a tree in her memory.

Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, teaching women to plant trees as a way to keep their water clean and provide them with wood. The Nobel Committee noted that her work stood out particularly against the repressive government of former Kenyan president Daniel arap Moi, who was no Maathai fan. He called her "mad" and described her as a threat to Kenyan national security, according to The Associated Press.

She ended up as one of Kenya's best known citizens; the present Kenyan president, Mwai Kibaki, mourns her as "a global icon who has left an indelible mark in the world of environmental conservation."

And this afternoon, President Obama said "the world mourns ... and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called 'our common home and future.' "

Maathai, a professor at the University of Nairobi, spoke with NPR's Montagne on Morning Editionin 2004. She told Renee that after she learned she had been awarded the Nobel, she walked outside and planted a tree.

"That's the way I do things when I want to celebrate, I always plant a tree. And so I got an indigenous tree, called Nandi flame, it has this beautiful red flowers. When it is in flower it is like it is in flame."

She explained that when she created the Green Belt movement in Kenya, her first goal was to help poor women who lacked clean water, wood for fires and huts. But she came to realize the Kenyan government was one of the biggest 'culprits' standing in the way of their success. Planting trees was a way to peacefully defy the repressive government and empower women at the same time.

Wangari Maathai had studied biology in the United States before returning home to teach; she became the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a doctorate, the first to win a university professorship and the first to chair a department.

In 2007, when her autobiography — Unbowed — was released, she reminisced about her life with NPR's Michel Martin on Tell Me More. Maathai reflected on growing up poor, her parents' determination to see her go to college, and the obstacles she and other women faced. Despite earning a doctorate, Maathai had difficulty obtaining a divorce because of women's lower status in society.

Michel asked Maathai to explain why the Nobel Committee singled out her environmental work for honor.

"When you think of all the conflicts we have — whether those conflicts are local, whether they are regional or global — these conflicts are often over the management, the distribution of resources. If these resources are very valuable, if these resources are scarce, if these resources are degraded, there is going to be competition. And it is over that competition that we get conflict.

"And that is why the Norwegian Nobel Committee thought that ... the time has come for us to realize that to work for peace, we need to manage our resources in a responsible way, in an accountable way so that people — so people don't feel like they're marginalized."

Maathai followed up her autobiography with a book on accountability, called The Challenge for Africa." She spoke in April, 2009, with NPR's Neal Conan on Talk of the Nation. She wrote and spoke scathingly of the wreckage Europeans inflicted through colonialism, but is equally blunt about the problem of corruption facing modern African leaders:

"You cannot blame it on the debts and how we have managed the loans and the — the debt that we have incurred in the last so many decades. You cannot blame the mismanagement of the economy or the fact that we have not invested adequately in education in order to give our people the knowledge, the skills and the technology that they need in order to be able to use the resources that Africa has to gain wealth. And so I'm saying that, yes, colonialism was terrible, and I describe it as a legacy of wars, but we ought to be moving away from that by now."

Here's one more look back at this remarkable woman. She narrates I Will Be A Hummingbird, a tale of always trying to do the best you can, no matter how small you are.

Tributes to Maathai are filling the pages of Greenbelt.org. No funeral details have been announced.

Our colleague Ofeibea Quist-Arcton will have more about Maathai on today's edition of All Things Considered. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Korva Coleman is a newscaster for NPR.