Known as Africa’s ‘Forest Goddess’, Wangari Maathai has passed away at the age of 71. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, stating in her acceptance speech in 2004, “The challenge is to give back to our children a world of beauty and wonder”.
From her childhood growing up in Kenya, Maathai witnessed forests being wiped out, destroying biodiversity and water sources. It’s something we see in TV ad appeals every day but probably don’t stop to consider the root of problem. Maathai spent her life considering it and making positive effect. In 1977, she founded The Green Belt Movement with a group of local women, who were responsible for planting in excess of 30 million trees throughout Africa, to restore the forests and conserve water resources. Coming up against it, suffering death threats and personal attacks, Maathai continued her work in the social and environmental realms, saying “Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do”. Elected as an MP in Kenya during the first free and fair elections in 2002, Maathai was given the appointment of Deputy Minister for the Environment thereafter. During her tenure, she also tackled education, awarding scholarships for orphaned children and HIV/ AIDS victims. In 2005, she was appointed Goodwill Ambassador for the Congo Basin rainforest and the following year joined the UN Environment programme in a campaign that planted a billion trees in a year. In an interview with Kieran Cooke (printed in SOUL i-D), Maathai said, ‘I tell people I think heaven is green”. Kenya’s 2007 elections were wrought with violence and Maathai played an instrumental role as a “voice of peace”. A few years on in 2010 she founded the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies. A Nobel prize on the one hand, but in the shadows awards including the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights, Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun and many more. Never stopping, always motivating, always inspiring, Maathai leaves a legacy of positive change. “I hope I can still cause a stir,” she said to Cooke, “You’ve always got to create waves – it’s the only way to get things done.”
Text: Sarah Raphael