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 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 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 UN to launch a worldwide campaign that resulted in 11 billion trees planted.
Maathai, a university professor with a warm smile and college degrees from the United States, staged popular protests that bedeviled former President Daniel arap Moi, a repressive and autocratic ruler who called her "a mad woman" who was a threat to the security of Kenya.
In the summer of 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 armed with machetes and bows and arrows. When Maathai tried to plant a tree, she and her cohorts were attacked with whips, clubs and stones. Maathai received a bloody gash on her head.
"Many said, 'She is just planting trees.' But that was important, not only from an environmental perspective, to stop the desert from spreading, but also as a way to activate women and fight the Daniel arap Moi regime," said Geir Lundestad, director of the Nobel Institute, which awarded Maathai the peace prize in 2004.
"Wangari Maathai combined the protection of the environment, with the struggle for women's rights and fight for democracy," he said.
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 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.