In 2004, Maathai was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to promote sustainable development, democracy and peace.

Editor’s Note: CNN Correspondent Zain Verjee, who knew Wangari Maathai personally, writes here about her lasting legacy and the impact Maathai had on her life.

Story highlights

CNN's Zain Verjee pays tribute to Wangari Maathai

Fellow Kenyan Verjee calls her an "inspiration"

Maathai embodied change she wanted to see in the world

She gave underprivileged African women a voice

CNN  — 

I’m often asked who has been an inspiration in my life and my career. The answer I’ve always given is Wangari Maathai.

I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and I saw first-hand the incredible fighting spirit of a woman who believed passionately in what she was doing. I remember turning on the local news one evening and there was Wangari beaten up by the police, bruised, her face swollen, and in a hospital bed still speaking out.

She had led a protest against the then-government’s plan to cut down Karura Forest, an urban forest in Nairobi, so they could allocate the prime land between themselves.

In Kenya at the time, very few spoke people out against the autocratic regime of Daniel Arap Moi, and especially not a woman in a chauvinistic African culture!

However, Wangari wouldn’t back down. She founded the Green Belt Movement and today whenever I go home to Nairobi or visitors come to my country, you will see two major green spaces, Uhuru Park (our version of New York’s Central Park) and Karura Forest, because of her work.

World mourns ‘true African heroine’

Remember too, that in Africa women gather firewood from trees to cook food or boil water and deforestation was, and is, threatening their lives.

Wangari knew that, and so her movement planted trees across the country, then in Africa, then the world. She put Kenya on the world stage and gave underprivileged African women a voice fighting for their human rights.

Her legacy is a powerful one. She put critical issues of deforestation, desertification and women’s access to natural resources on the front burner. These are crucial in the day-to-day survival of millions around the world, particularly in Africa.

She was one voice that championed this cause in a country where speaking out was unheard of. She set an example to women in Kenya and elsewhere. She empowered women’s rights but helped the world understand the specific and nuanced cultural and tribal challenges women face on the African continent. She was charismatic, gentle and fiercely committed to the environment.

I will forever remember and appreciate her friendship, her advice, her wide smile, her beautiful bright Kenyan outfits, the warmth and support she would show me, the endless compliments she would pay me for being a Kenyan at CNN as she would tightly hold my hand.

Wangari was a role model for me, and someone who touched and motivated me to create new possibilities for myself no matter what the odds were.

Even today as I talked about her death to friends who didn’t recognize her name on first reference, they would say “oh, the tree woman,” recognizing the impact of her work. She was more than that. Wangari Maathai embodied the change she wished to see in the world.

To her daughters and granddaughter today, I say “pole sana”, my condolences in Swahili. She was a truly special spirit.