African Union honours Wangari Maathai

AU gardens in Addis Ababa named after Kenyan Nobel Prize winner

The African Union (AU) has named the gardens at its headquarters in Addis Ababa after Kenya's Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning political activist and one of the most influential women in Africa, who died in September 2011.

The proposal to honour the late Kenyan environmentalist was made by Congo during the 25th AU summit which concluded on 15 June in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Known as a human rights advocate, feminist and politician, Maathai is best remembered for her Green Belt Movement. Founded in 1977, the movement’s philosophy was to battle soil erosion across Kenya by planting trees, which in turn produced firewood and created employment for women. The United Nations estimates that the movement has helped to plant more than 51 million trees in Africa over the last 38 years.

Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace" with the Nobel committee also citing her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular”.

Although hailed internationally for her speeches against environmental abuses and poverty, Maathai faced antagonism, and sometimes violence, from the political establishment in her native Kenya.

The country’s former president Daniel Arap Moi labelled the Green Belt Movement “subversive” in the 1980s. During a protest against government plans to build a skyscraper in one of Nairobi's few central green areas, she was beaten unconscious by Kenyan police. But the project was eventually scrapped.

She also thwarted a government plan to privatise large tracts of land around Karura forest in the northern suburbs of Nairobi. President Moi abandonned the project when coverage of her supporters being attacked provoked an international outcry. After Moi left office in 2002, Maathai served as a member of parliament and as an assistant minister on environmental issues until 2008.

Born in 1940 in Nyeri, at the foot of Mount Kenya, Maathai studied in the US and Germany. She also obtaining a degree in veterinary anatomy from Nairobi university, and went on to teach there as an associate professor. She received numerous honorary degrees and was the author of several books.