The first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, environmental activist Wangari Maathai, received her award Friday to the beat of drums and dancers that broke with the usual stodgy ceremony, and she urged her audience “to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder.”
Maathai received the traditional gold medal and diploma that accompanies the $1.5 million prize. She warned that the world remained under attack from disease, deforestation and war, and urged new approaches to solving those problems.
“Today, we are faced with a challenge that calls for a shift in our thinking, so that humanity stops threatening its life-support system,” she told the crowd of dignitaries that included the Norwegian royal family as well as talk show host Oprah Winfrey and Kerry Kennedy, a daughter of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
“We are called to assist the Earth to heal her wounds and in the process heal our own indeed, to embrace the whole creation in all its diversity, beauty and wonder,” Maathai said. “This will happen if we see the need to revive our sense of belonging to a larger family of life, with which we have shared our evolutionary process.”
Before she took the stage, the traditionally rigid and formal ceremony lit up with color and sound as three African dancers and accompanying drummers pounded out a brief piece of music that echoed off the walls of the large auditorium that was decorated with flowers.
“In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other,” she said. “That time is now.”
As the 64-year-old Kenyan spoke in English, many in the crowded auditorium nodded in agreement.
“You are an extraordinary example for women throughout Africa, throughout the world,” said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
Maathai, who is the 12th woman to receive the prize since it was first awarded in 1901, said she’ll use it to encourage more environmental protection, adding that the relationship between a safe environment and peace was and remains forever linked.
Maathai’s selection by the secretive five-member Nobel Committee for the Peace Prize for raised eyebrows because of her environmental ties and also because of controversy over statements she reportedly made asserting that AIDS was a laboratory-created ailment.
But she told The Associated Press that her comments about AIDS being created to destroy Africans were misquoted and taken out of context.
“I have not said what I’m quoted as saying,” she said of claims that AIDS was created by scientists and loosed upon Africa by the West.
She reaffirmed her stand in a statement released by the Nobel Committee that said: “It is therefore critical for me to state that I neither say nor believe that the virus was developed by white people or white powers in order to destroy the African people. Such views are wicked and destructive.”
Maathai, who is also the first Kenyan to win the award, was selected for her role in founding the Green Belt Movement, which has sought to empower women, improve the environment and fight corruption in Africa for nearly 30 years.
A deputy environment minister in the Kenyan government, Maathai also won acclaim for her campaign to fight deforestation by planting 30 million trees in Africa.
Her Nobel prize is the first to acknowledge environmentalism as a means of building peace.
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has challenged the world to broaden the understanding of peace: there can be no peace without equitable development; and there can be no development without sustainable management of the environment in a democratic and peaceful space. This shift is an idea whose time has come,” she said.
Awards in Stockholm
Eleven other Nobel laureates will receive their awards in another ceremony later Friday in Stockholm, Sweden. More than 1,300 guests, including Sweden’s royal family, were invited to a celebration dinner.
Noticeably absent this year was the literature prize winner, Austrian Elfriede Jelinek, who says she has a social phobia. Although she sent a video to this week’s Nobel lectures, she did not send any prepared remarks for the banquet.
Americans Richard Axel and Linda B. Buck won the medicine prize for their work on the sense of smell. Americans David J. Gross, H. David Politzer and Frank Wilczek won the physics prize for their explanation of the force that binds particles inside the atomic nucleus.
The chemistry prize was awarded to Israelis Aaron Ciechanover and Avram Hershko and American Irwin Rose for their work in discovering a process that lets cells destroy unwanted proteins.
Norwegian Finn E. Kydland and American Edward C. Prescott received the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for shedding light on how government policies and actions affect economies worldwide.
The economics prize was introduced in 1968 and is funded by Sweden’s central bank. The other awards are funded by the Nobel Foundation.
The Nobel Prizes are always presented on Dec. 10, the anniversary of the death of their creator, Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel.