Wangari Maathai

From the November-December 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Wangari Maathai

“By planting trees, my colleagues in this grassroots movement and I planted ideas. The ideas, like the trees, grew.” —Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

Dr. Wangari Maathai never forgot the power of ideas or individuals in grassroots movements. In her memoir, Unbowed, she wrote, “A tree…tells us that in order to aspire we need to be grounded…a reminder to all who have had success that we cannot forget where we came from…our power and strength and our ability to reach our goals depend on the people, those whose work remains unseen, who are the soil out of which we grow, the shoulders on which we stand” (p.293).

Born in rural Kenya, Maathai became the first woman in Central and East Africa to earn a PhD. A few years later she learned that malnutrition had escalated in her home region, one of Kenya’s most fertile. Because so much land had been deforested to grow cash crops, coffee and tea, children were fed white bread and white rice. The scarcity of firewood had made the cost of cooking traditional nutritious foods prohibitive. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, a program to pay rural women to plant trees. Despite setbacks, including strong opposition from Kenya’s government, over 30 million trees have been planted.

Maathai’s own words honor and perpetuate her legacy: “The rural women of Kenya … have been key to the success of the Green Belt Movement… women have become aware that planting trees or fighting to save forests from being chopped down is part of a larger mission to create a society that respects democracy, decency, adherence to the rule of law, human rights, and the rights of women….I also have a lot of hope in youth. Their minds do not have to be held back by old thinking about the environment… We are called to do the best we can!”

Susan Van Gelder

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