Johannesburg — Wangari Maathai’s friends and family tried to persuade her to stick around yesterday. In the early morning, they heard the astonishing news that the long-time Kenyan environmental activist was on the shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize, and CNN was due to broadcast the announcement of the winner live at noon. Surely, they suggested to Ms. Maathai, she should be near the television or at least a phone line when the announcement came.
But Ms. Maathai had a commitment, as she often does, to plant some trees with people in a rural area, and she wasn’t about to break it, Nobel Prize or no prize.
That left her daughter, Wanjira, and her colleagues shrieking “like lunatics” in the Nairobi office of the Green Belt Movement when word came that Ms. Maathai, 64, had won the prize, the first African woman to do so and the first person in the 103-year history of the Nobel Prize to be recognized specifically for environmental activism.
“We believe that Maathai is a strong voice speaking for the best forces in Africa to promote peace and good living conditions on that continent,” the Nobel committee said in its citation.
“Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment. Maathai stands at the front of the fight to promote ecologically viable social, economic and cultural development in Kenya and in Africa.”
Ms. Maathai, off in a village, wasn’t immediately available for comment. Norwegian television eventually got through on her cellphone.
“I am absolutely overwhelmed and very emotionally charged, really,” she said. “The environment is very important in the aspects of peace, because when we destroy our resources and our resources become scarce, we fight over that. I am working to make sure we don’t.”
Then the phone battery died, and she went on planting trees.
Ms. Maathai has been directly or indirectly responsible for the planting of about 30 million trees across Africa, as she struggled to break the vicious cycle of deforestation and poverty that plagues women in rural areas.
She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, recognizing that desperation was causing poor women to cut down trees for cooking fuel, but that the resultant desertification only worsened their plight.
She broadened her activism into campaigning for governance — against, for example, land grabs in the era of dictator Daniel Arap Moi — and was severely beaten by government thugs, jailed and championed as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience. That was not the only time she suffered government repression.
She now serves as Kenya’s deputy environment minister, and the movement she started has spread to more than 30 African countries.
“She is a woman with determination, with energy,” said Sam Kanyamibwa, the World Wildlife Fund’s deputy Africa director, who has worked with her.
Ms. Maathai, born to a comparatively well-off Kenyan family, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in biology in the United States before returning home to earn a doctorate, the first woman in east and central Africa to do so.
She was appointed head of the veterinary medicine faculty at the University of Nairobi, the first woman to head a university department in the country. She left her academic career to pursue environmental activism full-time.
The Green Belt Movement began as an effort to teach rural women about the relationship between deforestation and erosion, paying them a small fee for the trees they planted. Ms. Maathai grew the first seedlings they planted in her own backyard.
“It has been 30 years of a lot of hard work; the struggle has been very painful, and this is a validation of the work she has been doing,” her daughter, Wanjira, told The Globe and Mail over the sound of raucous celebration in the Green Belt office. “The entire country will celebrate this victory.”
Ms. Maathai’s husband, a politician, divorced her in the 1980s on the grounds that she was “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control,” and she raised their three children on her own.
The Nobel Prize, which includes $1.3-million (U.S.), will be presented to Ms. Maathai on Dec. 10 in Oslo. STEPHANIE NOLEN, Globe and Mail