World mourns Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai

What you need to know:

  • Maathai died on Sunday night after long battle with cancer of the ovary

The world was on Monday united in mourning Prof Wangari Muta Maathai, a conservationist and Nobel Peace laureate who died on Sunday night.

News of her death was met with outpouring of grief and sympathy in the most powerful offices in the world, from the White House in the US to Downing Street in the UK, Johannesburg in South Africa and Tokyo in Japan, the social media, television stations and even the village paths.

She succumbed to cancer of the ovary. She was 71 and is survived by her three children — Waweru, Wanjira, and Muta, and granddaughter Ruth Wangari.

Prof Maathai’s family released a brief statement announcing her demise: “September 25, 2011, is a day of great sadness as we, the family, announce the passing away of our dear mum, Prof Wangari Maathai, at The Nairobi Hospital after a prolonged struggle with cancer.”

At Green Belt Movement, the organisation she established to campaign for environmental protection and conservation, the mood was all gloom. The deputy director in charge of programmes, Mr Edwin Wageni, said it was a major blow to the organisation.

“Obviously, it’s a big blow to the nation and the organisation,” he said, adding: “She has been in and out of hospital and for this particular moment she was in hospital from last Thursday.”

President Kibaki sent condolences from New York where he is attending the UN General Assembly.

“It is with a deep sense of sadness and sorrow that I learnt of the death of Nobel laureate Prof Wangari Maathai. On behalf of the government and people of Kenya and on my own behalf I send you this message of sympathy, at this time when we mourn a global icon who has left an indelible mark in the world of environmental conservation,” the President said.

US President Barack Obama extended condolences Monday at the death of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her struggle against environmental degradation.

Obama said he had learned of her death on Sunday in Nairobi "with great sadness."

"On behalf of all Americans, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Professor Maathai's family and the people of Kenya at this difficult time," the president, whose father was Kenyan, said in a statement.

"The world mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called 'our common home and future,'" he said.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Maathai as "a tireless advocate for the environment, for women and for all those in the developing world who are unable to realize their potential."

"Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build on," she said.

Prime Minister Raila Odinga said: “I join Kenyans and friends of Kenya in mourning the passing on of this hero of our national struggles. Hers has been heroism easily recognised locally and abroad, one attained in her lifetime and therefore not left to historians to interpret.”

Speaking at The Hague, Finance minister Uhuru Kenyatta said: “We’ve lost a true heroine of Kenya, a defender of the rights of Kenyans and a true crusader for the environment. It is a loss not just to her family, but to Kenya and the world.”

Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete was among the first world leaders to celebrate the professor.

“Rest in peace Dr Wangari Maathai. A great woman, an inspiration for many women across Africa, a magnificent visionary and embodiment of courage,” he tweeted.

Former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said Prof Maathai would be celebrated and honoured for many years.

True role model

Prof Calestous Juma of Havard University said she was his mentor. “She gave me my first environmental job and opened international doors for me.

She was a true role model for me at a critical moment when I needed a mentor of her calibre. The world will miss a formidable environmental warrior.”

Trade unionist Francis Atwoli described her as a “non-corrupt, persistent fighter for justice”.

Dr Gitahi Kiama from the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies based at the University of Nairobi said she was peerless.

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