Kenyans bid farewell to laureate Wangari Maathai

AP , Saturday 8 Oct 2011

Thousands of Kenyans attend the farewell of Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize

Schoolchildren hold a portrait of the late Wangari Maathai, at her state funeral (Photo:AP)

Kenyans on Saturday bade farewell to the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in a colorful state funeral marked with prayers, praises and tree planting.

Thousands of Kenyans, including President Mwai Kibaki and Prime Minister Raila Odinga, amassed at a landmark park in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, to attend prayers held for the late Wangari Maathai.

Maathai, who won the Nobel in 2004 for her work in conservation and women's rights, resisted a government plan to build a complex at Uhuru Park, where the funeral was taking place Saturday.

"Wangari's legacy goes beyond Kenya _ all over the world," said Odinga. "We have lost a dedicated selfless Kenyan patriot," and her work will continue to inspire the rest of the world.

Rev. Phyliss Ochillo who prayed for Maathai Saturday said the laureate was concerned about the environment when he visited her in hospital only a day before her death.

"She did not respond to anything but when I talked about the environment that's when she responded," Ochillo said.

Maathai was seen as a threat to the rich and powerful. She was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, a natural wonder she believed could reduce poverty and conflict.

Maathai, best known as the Tree Mother of Africa, believed that a healthy environment helped improve lives by providing clean water and firewood for cooking, thereby decreasing conflict. The Kenyan organization she founded planted 30 million trees in hopes of improving the chances for peace, a triumph for nature that inspired the U.N. to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.

Maathai died late last month after a long battle with cancer. She was 71.

"The best way we can honor her is to carry on the great work she started especially in the fields of environmental conservation, social justice, human rights and democracy," President Kibaki said.

Maathai asked to be cremated because burying her in a wooden coffin would mean that a tree was cut, even though cremation defies Kenya's tradition of a burial. The casket carrying her body to be cremated Saturday was bamboo-framed, made of water hyacinth and papyrus reeds and draped with a Kenyan flag.

Although the family announced days earlier that the cremation would be private, thousands of Kenyans followed the ceremony up to the gate of the crematorium to try and catch a glimpse of the moments before she was reduced to ashes. But hundreds of police kept guard and pushed the crowd back from getting too close.

More than 5,000 tree seedlings are expected to be planted in her honor Saturday.

Maathai was the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. But on Friday three champions of women's rights in Africa and the Middle East were also awarded the prize.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee split the prize between Tawakkul Karman, a leader of anti-government protests in Yemen; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman to win a free presidential election in Africa; and Leymah Gbowee of Liberia, who campaigned against the use of rape as a weapon in her country's brutal civil war.

Maathai said during her 2004 Peace Prize acceptance speech that the inspiration for her life's work came from her childhood experiences in rural Kenya. There she witnessed forests being cleared and replaced by commercial plantations, which destroyed biodiversity and the capacity of forests to conserve water.

After Kenya's former President Daniel arap Moi left government, Maathai served as an assistant minister for the environment and natural resources ministry.

Although the tree-planting campaign launched by her group, the Green Belt Movement, did not initially address the issues of peace and democracy, Maathai said it became clear over time that responsible governance of the environment was not possible without democracy.

Maathai's work was quickly recognized by groups and governments the world over, winning awards, accolades and partnerships with powerful organizations.

Maathai was the first woman to earn a doctorate in East Africa _ in 1971 from the University of Nairobi, where she later was an associate professor in the department of veterinary anatomy. She previously earned degrees from Mount St. Scholastica College _ now Benedictine College _ in Atchison, Kansas, and the University of Pittsburgh.

Maathai is survived by three children.

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