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Wed Dec 07 20:13:33 SAST 2016

We can honour Maathai's legacy by continuing her work

The Editor, The Times Newspaper | 2011-09-27 00:02:19.0

There is a story about Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, that illustrates the power of her life.

<b>The Times Editorial: </b> According to this story, her husband Mwangi Mathai left her in 1977 on the grounds that she was too strong-minded and difficult to control.

After they divorced, he sent a lawyer's letter, instructing that she no longer use his surname. She added an additional "a" to her surname rather than to submit to his demand.

As the news spread yesterday of Maathai's death from cancer, the tributes to this Kenyan environmentalist and activist poured in.

Her phenomenal life was retraced - starting with her ground-breaking work when she founded the Green Belt Movement in Kenya that had its origins in attempting to help rural women's needs.

"Women also take on leadership roles, running nurseries, working with foresters, community-based projects for water harvesting and food security. All of these contribute to their developing more confidence and more power over the direction of their lives," Maathai said about the movement.

Later, planting trees across Kenyan communities took on other meanings, like peace trees to deal with conflict and an acute awareness of the destruction of natural resources.

For Africa to have lost a woman - no, a citizen - like Maathai is indeed a tragic moment because so much of her work was based on upliftment and hope, of change and renewal not only for her own country, but for the continent.

This African champion is gone. But her lessons and legacy endure.

And for us, on her continent, Maathai's greatest gift rests in the fact that she gave so much hope to so many women - that they could be agents of change in a small, yet such a direct way. An example that we, here in South Africa, could do well to follow in honour of a truly phenomenal African daughter.

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