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Kenyans gather to say goodbye to Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai

By Faith Karimi, CNN
October 13, 2011 -- Updated 0413 GMT (1213 HKT)
Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist, Wangari Maathai has died at the age of 71 Kenyan environmentalist and human rights activist, Wangari Maathai has died at the age of 71
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maathai, 71, died last month after a battle with cancer
  • She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize
  • The environmentalist also fought for the empowerment of impoverished communities
  • Known as the Tree Mother of Africa, her campaign led to the planting of 40 million trees in Kenya

(CNN) -- Kenyans gathered in the nation's capital Saturday for a state funeral honoring Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, marking a final journey for the first African woman to win the peace prize.

Maathai, 71, died last month after a battle with cancer.

She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her years of environmental conservation. The human rights activist also fought for the empowerment of impoverished communities in the continent.

Crowds gathered at the main park in Nairobi for a state service that included President Mwai Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga and other government officials.

Military forces stood guard next to a mounted picture of the activist, which had a small green shrub pinned on it. Nearby, a car carrying her coffin surrounded by green shrubs slowly made its way down a red carpet under police escort.

Throngs of citizens quietly walked next to it.

In true fashion to her cause, Maathai stated in her will that she did not want a wooden coffin, organizers said.

The ceremony at the park included a tree-planting ceremony and interdenominational prayers. The park was a common venue for her protests, including a defiant rally to stop the government from building a high-rise on the site years ago.

Following the gathering, close relatives left for a private event at the crematorium. At her request, her remains will be cremated and her ashes interred at a peace institute in the capital, according to the Green Belt Movement she founded.

For decades, Maathai has been at the forefront of a tree-planting campaign to stop deforestation and give locals, especially women, access to resources such as firewood for cooking and clean water.

The former parliament member was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree. She was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of 100 most influential people in the world.

During her activism work, she was beaten and arrested numerous times, especially during the former regime of President Daniel arap Moi.

Known as the Tree Mother of Africa, she launched a campaign that led to the planting of 40 million trees in Kenya. She believed that lack of natural resources causes most conflicts.

"It is evident that many wars are fought over resources which are now becoming increasingly scarce," she said on receiving news that she had been awarded the Nobel prize.

"If we conserved our resources better, fighting over them would not occur ... protecting the global environment is directly related to securing peace. Those of us who understand the complex concept of the environment have the burden to act. We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist."

The first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize died weeks before another milestone in the continent she fought for.

On Friday, the Nobel Committee awarded the peace prize to three women activists: Liberians Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first African woman elected head of state and Leymah Gbowee, who campaigned for peace during the nation's brutal civil war and anti-government protester Tawakkul Karman of Yemen.

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