Remembering Kenya’s Wangari Maathai: She Planted Many Seeds

Written by Lisa Hayden on . Posted in Learn

The tree for me is hope, it is the future. When I look at the tree I see promise. It starts from a seed. Eventually it becomes a huge tree. It becomes an ecosystem in itself. It is a home for other species. It is a symbol of many things. A tree is everything to me. Wangari Maathai, founder of the Green Belt Movement, December 19, 2005

Many are mourning the loss of a great voice for people and the planet this week, with the passing of Professor Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan activist for women and the environment who died Sunday following treatment for cancer.  

As Jennifer Buffett blogged on Huffington Post: “In formally establishing the Green Belt Movement in 1977, Wangari was wise enough to see that for the disempowered, planting trees was in fact a radical act of self-assertion, a method of laying claim to the life-giving power of one small corner of the Earth.”

In this post, colleagues at The Nature Conservancy share their remembrances of Prof. Maathai, and why they found her so inspiring.

Kristen P. Patterson, Manager of U.S. Relations for the Conservancy’s Africa Region wrote: I am deeply saddened to hear of Wangari Maathai’s death. I was supposed to attend an event in her honor in Washington DC on the day she died; a week before the event we learned that she was too sick to travel to the U.S.

Professor was a warm, joyful woman and a true inspiration for the conservation and women’s movements in Kenya and the world. The first time I met Professor she shook my hand warmly; the second time she enveloped me in a huge hug. On a Conservancy work trip to Kenya in 2008, I was able to spend time with a Green Belt Movement community group, Tumutumu, near Mount Kenya. Our visit ended by planting a fig tree. As the only woman in the Conservancy group, they wanted me to place the tree in the hole and put the first few handfuls of soil around it. As I put the tree in the ground, the women began to gently clap their hands while singing softly. It was a moving experience for me.

I’ll be planting a tree in Professor’s honor, perhaps on her birthday next spring.

Mark Tercek, CEO of The Nature Conservancy, blogged on Huffington Post: … Professor Maathai will be remembered as a woman of many firsts. She was the first woman in east Africa to earn a Ph. D. In 2004, she won the Nobel Peace Prize, the first African woman and the first environmental activist to do so. And of course she will be remembered as a champion for many causes — the environment, women’s rights, sustainable development, peace. But her real legacy, in my view, was that she saw these issues as intertwined. …

… As founder of the Green Belt Movement, Professor Maathai helped Kenyan women realize their potential as environmental stewards, and showed them how protecting the environment and planting trees could lead to a better future for themselves and their children. Under her leadership and guidance, the Green Belt Movement planted more than 40 million trees in Kenya. …

… On the global stage, Professor Maathai was a strong advocate for reducing deforestation and the carbon emissions it generates and for climate adaptation, lobbying for their inclusion in the United Nations’ global climate agreements.

Through our partnership with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya and our work to address global climate change, many of us at The Nature Conservancy knew Professor Maathai. She was warm, affectionate and engaging; an inspiration to so many, yet still so humble and down-to-earth. Professor Maathai was that rare visionary who, with remarkable dedication and courage, was able to make many of her aspirations become reality. …

Chrissy Schwinn, Assistant Director of the Global Marine Team, wrote: I had the chance to briefly meet Wangari Maathai at the event we had on adaptation at the Copenhagen climate talks. We had moved mountains (and the timing of our event several times) to enable her to come, and knew that she was speaking at a series of events on the same evening. Not unexpectedly she was running a little late to ours so we were rearranging our speakers on the fly to accommodate her. She arrived and sat down to rest for a few minutes – clearly she had been moving all over town all day – then she called me over and very graciously asked for some water, and how long and when she would speak. That was it, but I noticed she had no notes and was sitting quietly, contemplating.  

Then she got up and delivered one of the most inspirational talks I’ve ever heard, speaking of the five mountains of Kenya that are the “water towers” to its people. Off the cuff. Amazing.

My encounter with her was brief, but one that I’ll be inspired by forever.

Eric Haxthausen, Director of U.S. Climate Policy, wrote: The world has lost a great hero with the passing of Professor Wangari Maathai. I had the privilege to meet her on a couple of occasions through her work to raise the profile of tropical forest conservation. She was a truly remarkable individual – a strong voice for women, for the developing world, and for preserving nature – who lived an extraordinary and challenging life. She spoke with an unrelenting and fierce moral authority that addressed truth to power and had an inner strength that was evident to all who met her. Yet she also radiated warmth and a gentle sense of humor, reminding us all of what was truly important and to be cherished.

Professor Maathai will be sadly missed. Her leadership, her charisma and her powerful voice for equity and justice are greatly needed in our world today. I pray that they will continue to inspire others as she inspired me, and that we can carry on her work of planting trees and healing the Earth.

Lisa Hayden is a blogger and writer for The Nature Conservancy

Photo © Erika Nortemann/TNC (Professor Wangari Maathai shares a laugh with anchorman Dan Rather (in background) and Vice President Al Gore (left) as she spoke at a 2008 New York City event hosted by Avoided Deforestation Partners).

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