The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Wangari Maathai, died in Nairobi, Kenya Sunday. Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her environmental activism throughout Africa.
Maathai left Kenya to earn a degree in Biological Sciences from Mount St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas (1964) then moved on to receive a Master of Science degree from the University of Pittsburgh (1966) before working towards a Ph.D. in Germany and the University of Nairobi.
In 1977 she started the Green Belt Movement, a Kenya-based non-profit "advocating for human rights and supporting good governance and peaceful democratic change through the protection of the environment." Through the Green Belt Movement, she started an initiative to reforest Kenya by paying poor women to plant trees.
She returned to Pittsburgh in 2006 to speak at Pitt, where she said that when Kenya gained independence, it began importing fast-growing trees to boost certain industries. "Now when you create these monocultures, you literally destroy the ecological systems in the forest, and you are left with farms of trees, farms of trees that are literally dead as compared to the ecological systems," said Maathai. "As I watched this happen I could clearly see that we were destroying our mountains."
Kenya's previous President, Daniel arap Moi, did not appreciate Maathai's first efforts in environmentalism. His government labeled the Green Belt Movement as "subversive" during the 1980s, and police once beat Maathai unconscious during a protest.
The Green Belt Movement has gone on to help plant over 40 million trees across Africa, and in 1986 established a Pan African Green Belt Network, exposing African leaders to tree planting programs. Since then, countries such as Tanzania, Uganda, Malawi, Lesotho, and Ethiopia have launched similar initiatives.
University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg said Maathai was an advocate of change. "Dr. Maathai's tireless advocacy as a stewardess of the earth and the voice of women, the poor, and the oppressed changed lives, a country, and a continent," said Nordenberg. "It also brought honor to her University, which greatly mourns the passing of this Nobel Laureate and distinguished daughter of Pitt."