Nobel Prize Winner and "Tree Lady" Wangari Maathai Had Roots in Kansas | KCUR

Nobel Prize Winner and "Tree Lady" Wangari Maathai Had Roots in Kansas

KANSAS CITY, MO – The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize died earlier this week. Wangari Maathai was widely known for her environmental and human rights work in her native Kenya. In the past 30 years, her organization planted more than 45 million trees there. But the woman nicknamed the "Tree Lady" also had roots in Kansas. Intern Brenna Daldorph tells that story.

A Lifelong Lesson in Service

Wangari Maathai was a 1964 graduate of Mt. St. Scholastica College in Atchison, Kan.

In 2007, she returned to give a speech at the school, which is now known as Benedictine College. While Maathai was in Kansas for the event, she spoke with KCUR news director Frank Morris about her time in Atchison. Maathai said she learned life lessons from the Benedictine nuns who ran Mt. St. Scholastica.

"I think some of the values that I definitely learned from them were hard work, commitment, and a concern for the people around," she said. "The issue of equity, which became very important in our work ... and the issue of service."

This idea of service would inspire her later work in her Kenya.

"I had received the education in the U.S. and so I needed to go home and serve, " she said.

A Tumultuous Time

Wangari Maathai attended college during the 1960's-- a turbulent time in American society.

"Here in Atchison, I was a very protected person but of course I knew what was happening with leaders like Martin Luther King," she said. "It really helped me to understand the issue of human rights."

Maathai would later link human rights to environmental devastation. Throughout her campaign, she was arrested, imprisoned and beaten.

Understanding Environmental Devastation

Maathai was the first environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts and said that caring for the environment would have long term effects.

"Often, the generation that destroys the environment is not the generation that pays the price," she said. "And so, often it is easy to sacrifice the environment."

Maathai, however, came to a different conclusion.

"That understanding has helped me persist with the campaign because I know that the damage we are doing to the environment today will be paid by our children and their children," she said.

Fondly Remembered at Benedictine

When Wangari Maathai went to Oslo, Norway, for the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, she brought the current president of Benedictine and two nuns who had taught at the school. One of them was Sister Thomasita. Upon hearing about Wangari's death, she wrote:

"Her deepest hopes are now realized. And hope now lives more strongly in me, in us, in our world."

Maathai died at the age of 71 after a long battle with cancer.

See a tribute video posted on the Benedictine College website and also posted on YouTube by user Benedictine College.

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