It was ovarian cancer that took away Prof Wangari Maathai’s life. Rarely was her strong voice heard as she battled the disease and she never made it public.
Diagnosed in July last year, Prof Maathai cut back her public appearances only coming out on rare occasions to lend her strength and voice to a cause she held dear.—environment
On Sunday at 11 pm, at 71, she succumbed at the Nairobi Hospital. Over the years, Prof Maathai had become a common public figure, almost always wearing a kitenge outfit with a matching scarf on her head. She addressed different international meetings, including the UN General Assembly.
Despite being sick, on the rare occasion that she was out in public, she never appeared frail. She made occasional appearance both locally and abroad.
One of her international appearances in the past year was as a keynote speaker at the opening of the UN International Year of the Forests, in New York.
There was no hint of her illness as she stood on a global platform calling on leaders to take action on protecting forests and likening environmental degradation to war.
Prof Maathai made appearances at her Green Belt office, which she founded in 1977, and has planted more than 40 million trees over the years.
On August 3, 2011, Prof Maathai was interviewed from Nairobi by NPR on the drought and refugee issues in the Horn of Africa. NPR is a not-for-profit station, based in the US, that provides content for over 400 radio stations worldwide.
During the interview with Michel Martin, an award winning American journalist, she compared what was going on there with the ongoing situation and the years of environmental degradation in the region. She also cited slow action by leaders to address the situation despite clear signs of the problem.
“One tragedy that we have been addressing for decades is environmental degradation... unfortunately, governments in this region have not taken environmental degradation seriously.”
As she retreated to her home in the past couple of months there were speculations about her health but few knew what was wrong.
Locally she led from the front by putting pressure on then President Moi’s regime to release political prisoners, to fighting the construction of a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park and protecting the environment, especially Karura Forest.
In 2002 she was elected to parliament and served as a deputy minister for the environment and natural resources but was defeated in 2007. But she continued to press for accountability in government and the lending a voice during the drafting of the Constitution, especially on environmental matters.