WASHINGTON, D.C. — Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS) community member Wangari Maathai died September 25 at the Nairobi Hospital after a long fight against ovarian cancer. She was 71.
The tireless environmental activist won her award in 2004 for years of standing up against a corrupt regime that sought to tear down the forests surrounding Nairobi. She endured physical and mental abuse while pressing the government to adopt democratic reform and sustainable development strategies, along the way founding the community-organizing Green Belt Movement in 1977.
“Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa,” the Nobel committee said in announcing the top honor to the first female in Africa to receive it. “She has served as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights and has especially encouraged women to better their situation.”
Holding a doctorate in anatomy from the University of Nairobi, Maathai was also a valuable member of the ACSS community. She spoke powerfully to African military and civilian leaders during the organization’s 2007 Senior Leaders Seminar in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She left her audience with much to think about after arguing that environmental security had become a key strategic challenge on the continent.
Ambassador (ret.) William M. Bellamy, the Director of ACSS, recalled that Maathai was completely surprised when she learned she had won the Nobel Prize.
“She was too busy as an activist, new member of parliament and assistant minister for environmental affairs to think about personal accolades,” Bellamy said. “Wangari possessed an extraordinary sense of the dangers of environmental degradation in Africa, and was tireless and courageous in rallying governments and ordinary citizens alike to confront this challenge. We will miss her greatly, but her inspiration lives on.”
The ACSS community mourns the passing of a friend and a “true African heroine,” as Archbishop Desmond Tutu has called her. We extend condolences to both her family and our Kenyan chapter during this time of loss.