DENVER - Rose Chiteva knew immediately what should be done when she heard of the death of her hero, Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai, on Sept. 25.
She wanted to plant trees.
At the suggestion of Chiteva, a Kenyan and University of Colorado Denver student, four fruit trees – two plums, two pears – were planted on the south side of the Golda Meir House along the 9th Street Park on the Auraria Campus on Oct. 10.
In a brief ceremony before the planting, which drew more than a dozen students and members of the African American Student Association, Chiteva called Maathai a "champion for the world."
Maathai, a Kenyan environmentalist who fought for sustainable development as well as human rights and democracy, became Africa's first female to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004. She was an activist who fought for African food security through protection of trees, water and the air.
Chiteva was a fellow in the Bold Food Project this summer in Africa. The project, organized by the Denver nonprofit Bold Leaders and funded by the U.S. State Department, involves fellows from the United States, Kenya and Uganda.
"It's an exchange program to promote food security and food equality and is centered on urban agriculture," said Greg Cronin, associate professor, Integrated Biology. Cronin called Maathai "a gift to the world" who has influenced environmental stewardship across the globe.
Chiteva, as an African and female conservationist, felt a special kinship to Maathai, who died at 71 after a battle with ovarian cancer. "Women have lost a vicious champion, Kenya and Africa have lost a voice and the world has a lost a champion," Chiteva said. "She reminded us we have a responsibility to protect the lives of generations and of species that could not speak." Chiteva said Maathai inspired her to study environmental conservation.
Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-governmental organization focused on planting trees, conservation and women's rights.
Bold Food donated the trees for the planting, bringing to five trees the project has given to the Auraria Campus. Cronin noted that the trees will produce fruit, which students will be able to enjoy as they pass the Golda Meir house.
Michael Donahue, co-director of Bold Leaders, said responsible food production was at the heart of much of Maathai's work. "This is really a symbolic act, a connection between the intent of the project – the U.S., Kenya and Uganda around food security – and how food security in both Uganda and Kenya is directly related to the loss of trees, soil and care of the land," Donahue said. "This is, particularly for the Africans here, to honor the work of a the Nobel Prize winner and her work in the conservation of trees and resources in Africa."
For Africans such as Chiteva, Maathai was a role model as well in her courage to confront resistance.
"She took on strong governments and powerful men, and she did it for us," Chiteva said. "Rest in peace, big sister."
(Photo: University of Colorado Denver students Michael Beerline, left, and Casey Earp plant one of four fruit trees on the south side of the Golda Meir House on the Auraria Campus Oct. 10 to honor Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai, who died on Sept. 25, won the Nobel Prize for her activism in environmental justice.)