Obituary: Professor Maathai – First African Woman to Win a Nobel Prize

Professor Wangari Maathai (1 April 1940 – 25 September 2011): Kenyan environmental scientist and activist.

In trying to sum the life and times of the late Prof Wangari Maathai, Mr Achim Seiner, the executive director of the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) called her “a force of nature” likening her to a desert growing acacia tree that is strong in character and able to survive in harsh conditions.

From being the first woman in East Africa to secure a Philosophy of Doctorate (PhD) in a male dominated field, succeeding in science and its related disciplines to being the first African woman to receive a Nobel price – Prof Maathai’s was an inspiration to all. She took “a road not taken” – to quote Robert Frost.

Prof Maathai dared to be an answer to momentous challenge of her time in the pursuit of education, environmental conservation and formulating her own political philosophy. She dared to dream, shared her vision, and implemented her mission no matter how difficult it was. She pursued challenges within her reach with undying enthusiasm. Nevertheless, Prof Maathai’s success is anchored in something so obvious, something so ordinary, and something so common – a tree.

All of us have a huge potential to make a difference, to make the world a better place to live in, to lighten the burden of our fellow human beings – by building on the foundation that has been laid down by the likes of Prof Maathai. We can embrace and accelerate the spirit of tree planting from where she has left off by opening our eyes to spot challenges as well as neglected solutions within our reach.

How many humble duties that are lying undone around the world as we step on them for “bigger challenges, bigger opportunities” of service? Prof Wangari’s life is a confirmation that ordinary things done with extraordinary passion and careful thought can transform lives and nations.

As we are mourning the death of Africa’s first woman Nobel prize winner, may it be a moment of reflection on the simple but neglected acts, words and duties that we can start affording to one another, to society and other nations; yes not only conserving the environment but also our integrity as a people and nation.

The world needs more Maathai’s than before in simple words such as “forgive me,” “I am sorry,” and “thank you.” The world needs more Maathai’s in simple acts of determination and devotion, in creativity and entrepreneurship, innovative and vast visions that are appropriate and achievable.

The world needs more Maathai’s who can dine with Kings but dirt their hands with the common man. The world needs more scholars who can disseminate their knowledge through simple but positive transformative partnerships with society. The world needs more great women and men who will dare to work with their hands to win the respect of others. The world needs women and men, the young and old who will dare to spot opportunities in every challenge however insignificant the solution might seem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, American writer, captured the greatness of often neglected simple things: “To laugh often and much…. To appreciate beauty; to find the best in others; to leave the world a bit better whether by a healthy child, a garden patch, or a redeemed social condition; to know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

Much is being counted on Prof Maathai’s contributions. Much can be counted on Kenyans, even if we might not command the same public attention as her – if we choose to be answers to challenges facing us as a people, instead of waiting for someone else to be.

Leave a Comment