Africa's 'Tree Mother,' Nobel winner dies

Wangari Maathai

KAREL PRINSLOO

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Kenya's former president called her a mad woman. Seen as a threat to the rich and powerful, Wangari Maathai was beaten, arrested and vilified for the simple act of planting a tree, a natural wonder Maathai believed could reduce poverty and conflict.

Former elementary students who planted saplings alongside her, world leaders charmed by her message and African visionaries on Monday remembered a woman some called the 'Tree Mother of Africa." Maathai, Africa's first female winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, died late Sunday in a Nairobi hospital following a battle with cancer. She was 71.

Maathai believed that a healthy environment helps 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, a professor with a warm smile and college degrees from the United States, staged protests that bedeviled former President Daniel arap Moi, a repressive and autocratic ruler. In 1998, the Kenyan government was giving land to political allies in a protected forest on Nairobi's outskirts. Maathai began a campaign to reclaim the land, culminating in a confrontation with 200 hired thugs. When Maathai tried to plant a tree, she and her cohorts were attacked with whips, clubs and stones.