Remembering a Trailblazer

Gordon Brown remembers the boldness, bravery, and optimism of Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai.

09.26.11 2:14 PM ET

Seven years ago Wangari Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, but all throughout her 71 years she blazed a trail for the environment, women's equality, and human rights. At every point of decision in her life she refused to be cowed by vested interests—whether they were polluting companies or aggressive, male-dominated political parties.

Although I had met Wangari in America, it was during a visit to Kenya that our friendship grew. She was at the time a minister in the Kenyan government, and she took me to a park where together we planted a tree. She explained that she and her Green Belt Movement were fighting against a massive planning application for the park—a fight in which, characteristically, she stood up to the forces of power and violence, and in which she proved ultimately successful.

Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai poses after receiving the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony 10 December 2004, in Oslo. Maathai becomes the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious award. Tree planter Maathai, got the prize for her campaign to save Africa's forests and for being a "leading spokeswoman for democracy and human rights, and especially women's rights".  AFP PHOTO/SCANPIX

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Kenyan ecologist Wangari Maathai poses after receiving the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize at a ceremony in Oslo. Maathai was the first African woman and first environmentalist to receive the prestigious award.

Her story is one of courage and indefatigable optimism. Born in poverty to a peasant family, she starred at school, winning a Kennedy scholarship that enabled her to travel to the U.S. for a university education. After a period as an academic in Nigeria and Germany, she returned to Kenya at 29 and married a rising Kenyan politician. She bore three children, and became the first woman in East and Central Africa to qualify for a doctorate in philosophy.

Career options at that time for the tiny number of educated Kenyan black women were limited, but Wangari took on a number of roles within civil society to try to better the lot of women, ending up as Kenya’s Red Cross director and head of the Universal Women Liaison Centre. Her experience with these organizations led her to reflect upon the nature of power in Kenya and throughout Africa—and to question whether those who exercised it did so wisely or even legitimately.

She also became increasingly interested in the previously underexplored connections between poverty and environmental degradation, leading her eventually to found the Green Belt Movement—the now-famous campaign to plant trees as a way of protecting both land and communities from the increasing menace posed by unchecked consumerism.

During this time she was the victim of continued state harassment. But her mistreatment did not lead to cynicism; instead she threw herself ever more wholeheartedly into her work, which led to a senior position in the United Nations Development Program based primarily in Zambia. Unable to take her family with her, she left her young children with her husband, with whom they lived for several years.

Underpinning all of her good deeds was a profound and resolutely hopeful sense of justice—one guided by her conviction that “society is inherently good, and people generally act for the best.”

Wangari’s efforts transformed the lives of tens of thousands of women, and led directly to the planting of tens of millions of trees. And her commitment lasted right until the end of her life; even in the face of a serious illness, she resolved to undertake a grand new project: to plant 1 billion trees across the planet. And in the last year I talked to her in some detail about her plans to establish a new university campus focusing on environmental and women’s issues in Kenya.

I hope that all of us who were inspired by her remarkable life will work to ensure that this becomes a permanent memorial to a woman whose stage was the whole world and who truly did change the world.