Hambe kahle Wangari Maathai

Gone too soon.

The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, the Kenyan activist and eco-warrior Wangari Maathai who died Sunday at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer, rose to prominence fighting for those most easily marginalised on the continent — poor women — and the degraded and exploited environment itself.

Maathai started her career as an environmental campaigner after planting some trees in her own back garden.

This inspired her in 1977 to form an organisation — comprised primarily of women — known as the Green Belt Movement to fight the devastating effects of deforestation and desertification.

She mobilised poor women to plant more than 30-million trees as part of a drive to produce sustainable wood for fuel use and to combat soil erosion. She was beaten, tear-gassed and whipped as she took to the streets in protests against environmental damage around Nairobi through the 1980s and 1990s.

Her former husband, whom she divorced in the 1980s, was said to have remarked that Maathai was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control”. A good epitaph.

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