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A great woman, one of the greatest people I have ever met, right up there with the Dalai Lama, twenty times more powerful than Opra.

here is an appreciation of her :

here is what I wrote about her in 2007 :


Partir c’est mourir un peu, Mirella says as we hug goodbye. I fly back up to Nairobi to meet Wangari Maathai, the Nobel-Prize-winning founder of the Greenbelt Movement. My eyes tear as I read, in my stack of clips on this remarkable lady, an animal story she tells on her speaking engagements. There is a terrible forest fire, and all the animals are fleeing the conflagration except for the hummingbird, which is zipping back and forth from a spring and scooping up tiny slivers of water in its beak, which it is dumping on the flames. “What do you think you are doing, foolish little bird ?” the other animals ask derisively, and the hummingbird says, “I’m doing what I can.”

This folk tale is not from Africa, she tells me in the offices of the Greenbelt Movement. “I heard it in Japan, but it is originally from South America, so it is a story that has traveled. It means, let us not be overwhelmed.” Wangari is very powerful woman, more powerful even than Opra. She speaks the truth, which everyone knows and respects her for, because they are afraid to. She speaks for the oppressed women of Kenya, who are forced to serve the men. She demands that the G-8 countries cancel billions of dollars Kenya and the other poor countries owe them. “Why should loans given to irresponsible projects or an illegitimate regime be the plight of the poor, when eight million Africans are dying every year from diseases that could be prevented,” she asks.

Wangari once led a group of mothers, who stripped before some corrupt policemen—the worst curse a Kenya man can receive—and was beaten senseless in prison for it. She is (as her autobiography is titled), unbowed.

We go to the Kenyan Parliament, which she is one of the eighteen female members of (out of 275) and is presiding over the planting of a tree for each of six colleagues who were killed in a plane crash a year ago, while on a peace mission to the tribally conflicted northern frontier. The sea of black suits parts deferentially for the the Lady of the Environment, as one of the honourables calls her. Her face, framed in a yellow kerchief, the traditional nyathifa, is sostrong that she doesn’t even have to say anything to be the center of energy and authority. She is like the matriarch here.

Wangari’s story begins sixty-six years ago in a Kikuyu village in the shadow of Mount Kenya called Ihithe. “Growing up in the countryside, you are surrounded by and part of everything,” she explains. “You receive it innately, not from your community. It is an experiential relationship that develops in your life. You see that water is part of life. You see the tadpoles in it and know they belong there. When they are not there, you get the feeling something is wrong.”

Ihithe’s spring flowed out from under an ancient strangler fig tree, which Wangari’s mother told her was the tree of god and must not be cut. “How far back this belief goes, I don’t know. If I had asked my mother why the tree was sacred, she probably would have said, because my mother told me. But the Kikuyu must have related to this tree in a spiritual way, not how can I use it and convert it into money. And there must have been an original source of that wisdom, that the figs were important food for the birds and for colonizing an area, the way its roots anchor hillsides and go deep into the ground and break up the rocks, allowing water to come up. This intuition, that the trees are important for the water system, was never written down anywhere, but it became encoded in the do’s and don’t’s, and whenever a Kikuyu wanted to communicate with the Creator, he burned an offering of a lamb under one of the fig trees.

We are losing cultural beliefs that are very important to the environment,” she continues, “I have been working hard on the cultural preservation statute in the new constitution, struggling to get it right, because everybody has culture. Culture is experience—the devices we use, the stories we tell, the way we interact with the environment, the food we eat, the shape of our bodies,

our spiritual vision, the politics we practice. To lose all that is to lose something so valuable. It is part of your accumulated wisdom.”

The l950s, as Wangari blossomed into adolescence, were a time of great turbulence in Kenya. A million Africans were placed in detention camps during the Mau Mau rebellion, the Kikuyu’s religion was subverted by missionaries, British settlers displaced and forcibly relocated their villages and forced them to cut down their forests and plant cash crops, which brought an increase of droughts. Wangari’s promise was recognized by some Benedictine sisters, who arranged a scholarship for her at Mount Scholastica College in Atchison, Kansas. Arriving in l961 ck, she encountered segregation, was politicized by the civil rights movement, and mourned the assassination of Kennedy. Then she did graduate studies in biology at the University of Pittsburgh and at the end of the decade she returned to teach veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi. Returning to Ihithe, she found the old fig tree replaced by coffee bushes, no tadpoles in the dried-up spring. The forest in which she had played was a charred wasteland. In l977 she started the Greenbelt Movement, exhorting Kenya’s women to plant trees to combat erosion, drought, and desertification and to provide themselves with a readier source of firewood. “The simple act of planting a tree is a step toward peace, because the health of the environment, resource scarcity, and tribal conflict are all related. There is a conflict going on right now,” she tells me, “between farmers, pastoralists, and hunter-gatherers on the slope of Mount Elgon. That is where my colleagues were headed when their plane went down.”

Wangari understands the connections. Now she has launched a billion-tree campaign, in the hope of getting people around the world engaged in the

global environmental emergency.

I tell her how much I admire and resonate to her holistic approach. She does not make the distinction between the environment and social justice, the fights against poverty, for human rights, women’s rights, the rights of trees and animals. It’s all about modern people realizing the basic truth that they have lost sight of, that traditional subsistence people still live by : everything on this earth has a right to be here and a role to play.

I have been thinking a lot on this trip about the role that women have to play at this critical juncture in the history of the planet, how mobilizing female nurturing energy may be the only hope for it. Louis Leakey mobilized this energy when he sent Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, two women with no scientific training in whom he perceived strong motherly instincts, to live with chimpanzees and gorillas. He figured that they would

instinctively understand and protect these animals better than some ambitious male academic who was only interested in getting his doctorate, and Leakey was right. Saba

also has this great motherly warmth, I tell Wangari, and it is the men who are destroying the world with their wars and greed and exploitation of people and resources. Isn’t it time to give the women a chance ?

It is important to nurture the female spirit of women,” she replies, “but we are still a long way off. There is a large number of very competent women, but the female factor is still a token. Even in our movement, the women serve the men and aren’t able to influence decisions and policy. Our politics are dominated by personality cults that emerge out of the tribe. Because of the insecurity that tribes suffered in the past, there is a lot of mistrust, and the tribal lords become symbols. Until we move away from there and emphasize merit, it will be very difficult to make it.”

Wangari is the only person I know of besides me who has thought about, with all the talk about global warming, the impact of humanity’s collective respirations, 6.5 billion times the 25,000 breaths each of person takes every day. It must be considerable. She says that each of us should plant ten trees to offset his or hers.




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