Loreto convent education led to Nobel Peace Prize

Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist who started out by paying women a few shillings to plant trees and went on to become the first African woman to win a Nobel peace prize, has died of cancer in Nairobi. She was 71.

Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats - environmentalist, feminist, politician, anti-corruption campaigner, human rights advocate, protester and head of the Green Belt Movement she founded.

Widely known for her intransigence and activism, in 2004 she beat 193 other nominees to win the Nobel prize, with the Nobel committee citing her for taking ''a holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women's rights in particular'', and serving ''as inspiration for many in the fight for democratic rights''.

Maathai not only spoke out against environmental degradation and poverty - which she believed were intimately connected - but told Africans to stop blaming colonial powers for their miseries when it was their own leaders who had for decades squandered fortunes.

Maathai served as an MP and assistant minister for several years, and in 2008, after being pushed out of government, she was tear-gassed by police during a protest against the excesses of Kenya's well-entrenched political class.

Maathai was born in the village of Ihithe, near Nyeri, in the central highlands of Kenya. Her parents were subsistence farmers from the Kikuyu tribe. She was the eldest of six children, and graduated in 1959 from Loreto Limiru Girls' High School run by Catholic nuns.

Her teachers recognised her talent and recommended her for a scholarship to study in the United States. She was part of the ''Kennedy airlift'' in which 300 Kenyans - including Barack Obama's father - were chosen to study at American universities in 1960. Four years later she obtained a degree in biological sciences from Mount St Scholastica College at Atchison, Kansas, and in 1965, a masters from Pittsburgh University.

In 1992, she found herself on a list of people targeted by the government for assassination. For protection, and as a defiant statement, she publicly barricaded herself in her home for three days before the police broke in to arrest her.

Maathai and others were charged with sedition and treason, and were only released after a campaign orchestrated by the Kennedys of Massachusetts.

FULL STORY: Unyielding champion of post-colonial struggles in Africa


Wangari Maathai’s last wishes (Daily Nation, Nairobi)

Wangari Maathai Nobel Lecture (nobelprize.org)

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