I found out through Twitter today that Wangari Maathai has passed away in Nairobi, Kenya after a batter with ovarian cancer. In New Zealand, the death of a great person is compared to the falling of a tōtara tree. Wangari is a giant tōtara, a woman of great standing in Africa and around the world.

I first met Wangari in November 2004 when we came to Nairobi for the Mine Ban Treaty’s First Review Conference. My colleague Brian Liu and I were there to hold a preview screening of our documentary film Disarm. Only weeks earlier, on 8 October, Wangari had received the call from the Nobel Peace Prize Committee informing her that she had won the prize for her contributions to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

The announcement placed the spotlight on landmines as less than a decade prior, in 1997, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and its coordinator Jody Williams had received the Nobel Peace Prize. Wangari was the first African woman to receive the Peace Prize. The previous year, in 2003, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded another woman, Shirin Ebadi, a human rights lawyer from Iran.

During the Mine Ban Treaty meeting in Nairobi my colleague Liz Bernstein, at that time the outgoing ICBL executive director, convened a “ladies’ tea” for the Jody, Wangari, and Shirin. Brian photographed the event, during which the idea of what was to become the Nobel Women’s Initiative was born.

Formally established soon after in 2006 by the three women plus sister laureates Rigoberta Menchú Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire, the Nobel Women’s Initiative has gone from strength to strength under its executive director Liz Bernstein. Fighting for peace with justice and equality, the Nobel Women’s Initiative has most recently been spearheading a new International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict.

I’m only sorry that since 2004 the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo hasn’t managed to find another woman to award the Nobel Peace Prize. In its 100+ year history, only 12 of the 97 individuals awarded the Nobel Peace Prize were women. Wangari was the last woman to receive it eight years ago. And now we have lost her.

Rest In Peace Wangari.