Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel peace prize, died on Sunday night of cancer. She was 71. A towering figure in Kenya, Maathai was renowned as a fearless social activist and an environmental crusader. Her Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977, planted tens of millions of trees.
Maathai's death was confirmed on the movement's site.
"It is with great sadness that the family of Professor Wangari Maathai announces her passing away on 25 September 2011, at the Nairobi hospital, after a prolonged and bravely borne struggle with cancer. Her loved ones were with her at the time."
Maathai was a pioneer from an early age and in many spheres. After winning a scholarship to study in the US, she returned to a newly independent Kenya, becoming the first woman in east and central Africa to obtain a PhD. Maathai was also the first woman professor the University of Nairobi.
Her work with voluntary groups alerted her to the struggles of women in rural Kenya, and it quickly became her life's cause.
Noticing how the rapid environmental degradation was affecting women's lives, she encouraged them to plant trees to ensure future supplies of firewood and to protect water sources and crops.
Maathai's agenda quickly widened as she joined the struggle against the repressive and corrupt regime of Daniel arap Moi.
Her efforts to stop politicians grabbing land brought her into conflict with the authorities, and she was beaten and arrested numerous times. Her bravery and defiance made her a hero in Kenya.