“Fighter, Champion, Nobel Laureate,” is how Forbes describes the Kenyan environmental activist and 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient Wangari Maathai, who died on Sunday, at the age of 71. As well as stirring obituaries describing her efforts to take on the corrupt Kenyan government, and empower women to protect the environment (for instance, here, here and here), you can read personal recollections of the tireless campaigner and add to the well-wishers posting their tributes on Maathai’s Facebook wall.
Many obituaries illustrate Maathai’s legacy through this quote from her Nobel Prize Lecture: “In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now.”
It’s also worth noting how her Peace Prize was criticized at the time by some quarters. People asked why environmental activism was being honoured at a time in which war and terrorism were more pressing problems (you can read a spirited defence of Maathai’s prize made at the time.), not to mention the controversial remarks Maathai was alleged to have made about HIV/AIDS.
On a lighter note, if you are in the UK, you can gain further insight into Maathai through her choices on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, her book being the Koran and her luxury a huge basket of fruit. (For the non-Brits, this long-running radio programme, and a British institution, allows guests to choose eight pieces of music, one book and one luxury item with which to be marooned on a deserted island.)
However, on this occasion, images speak the loudest. To get a sense of Maathai’s inner strength and persuasiveness, watch this video clip from the film “Dirt”, in which she tells the story of the humble hummingbird — I defy you not to be inspired and moved by it.