Having said that, few others come to mind when thinking about how one person can move masses of people and their hearts to take up the cause of fighting against injustice and ecological degradation. Wangari Maathai was that person. Maathai, the Kenyan environmentalist and women's rights advocate, died last week. As a founder of the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, she has helped Kenyan women plant more than forty-five million trees across Kenya, "mobiliz[ing] community consciousness- using tree planting as an entry point- for self-determination, equity, improved livelihoods and security, and environmental conservation." How amazing.
She definitely stood tall and strong, social "norms" be damned. Here is how Richard Black, the environment correspondent for the BBC has explained Maathai's past.
Opposing a major government-backed development in Nairobi, she was labelled a "crazy woman"; it was suggested that she should behave like a good African woman and do as she was told. Her former husband made similar comments when suing for divorce: she was strong-willed, and could not be controlled.
I had heard about Maathai a few years ago when listening to Speaking of Faith (now called On Being). Krista Tippett, the host of On Being, writes...
That intensity of voice and passion I also heard in her conversation with one of my role models, Dick Gordon, when he interviewed her shortly after she won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 on a show called The Connection.A Remarkable Woman for All People and PlacesI am so glad I experienced Wangari Maathai in person, in her time on this Earth. She had a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour. I experienced her as immensely gracious but rather subdued until she started speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it was not hard to imagine that this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and that she had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees.
Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai said, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that "the earth was naked. For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green."
For a quarter century, Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement faced off against powerful economic forces and Kenya's tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to more than 600 communities across Kenya and into over 30 countries. After Moi's fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country's parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. And though I could find few interviewers who had asked Wangari Maathai about this, she was happy to talk about the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya's central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remained a practicing Catholic. But life taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family's ancestry.
The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa's second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya's rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. The volatility of the environment across the Horn of Africa now is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
The significance of Maathai's work cannot be understated. Anna Lappé and Frances Moore Lappé defended the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maathai by saying,
Maathai’s genius is in recognizing the interrelation of local and global problems, and the fact that they can only be addressed when citizens find the voice and courage to act [emphasis added by me]. Maathai saw in the Green Belt Movement both a good in itself, and a way in which women could discover they were not powerless in the face of autocratic husbands, village chiefs and a ruthless president. Through creating their own tree nurseries – at least 6,000 throughout Kenya – and planting trees, women began to control the supply of their own firewood, an enormous power shift that also freed up time for other pursuits.Let's draw from Maathai's wisdom and genius.
To see more interviews with Maathai, you can go to Democracy Now!