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[NAIROBI] On Friday, Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai became the first woman in Africa to win the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize honours decades of work leading the Green Belt Movement, which has spearheaded social development and environmental regeneration across Africa.

Maathai, now 64 and Kenya's deputy environment minister, was also the first woman in Eastern and Central Africa to hold a PhD and the first woman head of a university department in Kenya.

In addition to her PhD in anatomy from the University of Nairobi, Kenya, Maathai holds a master of science degree from the University of Pittsburgh, and a bachelor of science degree from Mount St. Scholastica College, both in the United States.

The Green Belt Movement's dual aim is to prevent soil erosion and provide firewood for cooking — an essential need in rural Africa. Members have planted over 30 million trees across the continent, and provided paid employment to rural women, enabling them to better their lives and those of their children.

The organization has been credited with changing the lives of thousands of people in Kenya.

Maathai launched the movement in 1977. Then head of the National Council of Women of Kenya, she found that deforestation and poverty, particularly among rural women, go hand in hand. She saw tree planting as both a way to regenerate the environment, and give impoverished rural people meaningful, and gainful, employment.

From a tree nursery in Maathai's own back garden, the number of rural tree nurseries in Kenya has now swelled to 5,000.

She has persisted with the campaign despite teargas attacks and even anonymous death threats.

Over the years, the focus of Maathai's activism has broadened. In the late 1980s, she waged a one-woman battle against the then President's plan to build a 60-storey building in Uhuru Park in the heart of Nairobi's city centre. Almost single-handedly, Maathai fought this plan and won, despite police beatings and being labelled a 'subversive' by then President Daniel Arap Moi.

In 1992, she joined the Mothers of Political Prisoners to wage a protracted protest against the imprisonment of political activists.

Her first serious bid for a seat in government came in 1997, when she ran for president. However, reports that she had withdrawn from the race led to her receiving few votes.

When she heard of her win, Maathai was meeting with constituents in the Nyeri district on the slopes of Mount Kenya, where she grew up. Fittingly, she planted a tree to celebrate.

Maathai's daughter, Wanjira, was manning the phones at the Green Belt Movement offices when the news broke. "We are sitting, standing, dancing, singing… Everybody is so happy here," she told SciDev.Net.