Remembering Wangari Maathai: Colleague, Friend, and Inspiration

Remembering Wangari Maathai: Colleague, Friend, and Inspiration

Every person who has ever achieved anything has been knocked down many times. But all of them picked themselves up and kept going, and that is what I have always tried to do.

Brighter Green is deeply saddened by the loss of Wangari Maathai (1940-2011), visionary founder of the Green Belt Movement; Nobel peace laureate; legendary advocate in Africa and beyond for social justice, human rights, democracy, and peace; and Brighter Green advisory board member.

Brighter Green Executive Director Mia MacDonald serves on the board of the Green Belt Movement-North America and had the honor of working with Wangari Maathai for a decade, beginning in 2001. Here is her remembrance of this extraordinary woman.

Wangari Maathai’s was a life of firsts—and many parts. She was the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D.; the first in Kenya to chair a university department; and the first African woman and first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004). She was even born on a 1st, of April. She was an environmentalist, scientist, parliamentarian, elder, peacemaker, mother, and grandmother. A synopsis of her life and achievements can be read here.

I first learned about Wangari’s work with the Green Belt Movement to restore degraded environments while providing income and agency for rural Kenyans—mainly women—through tree planting when I was a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School. I was struck by how unusual this approach was in the annals of international development, given its crossing of sectors normally kept separate: the environment, gender, poverty alleviation, governance, and self-help.

Wangari and the Green Belt Movement had also become keenly engaged in Kenya’s struggle to restore multi-party democracy. In the 1980s and 1990s, she’d led high-profile efforts to halt construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru (“Freedom”) Park in downtown Nairobi and to stop the “grabbing” of public land in forests by government cronies. For her commitment and persistence, she’d been beaten, jailed, and vilified by the regime, and even evicted from her office. Finding landlords too scared to rent her space, she moved the Green Belt Movement’s operations—and its 50 or so staff—to her modest Nairobi home. That was classic Wangari.

I first got to meet with her in Nairobi in the summer of 2001 to talk to her about her writing her autobiography. “Do you think anyone would be interested?” she asked my partner Martin Rowe and me. “Yes,” we said, and events proceeded from there. Martin’s company, Lantern, published a book Wangari had already written, The Green Belt Movement: Sharing the Approach and the Experience, and the three of us embarked on the process of completing Wangari’s life story.

In the meantime, Wangari won the Nobel Peace Prize. As it happened, I was with her when she got the news, heading to her parliamentary constituency over rutted roads in rural Kenya (she’d been elected to parliament when Kenya held its first free and fair elections in a generation in 2002). I wrote about the extraordinary events of that day for the Los Angeles Times. Wangari was absolutely astonished; never had she expected such an honor. “I didn’t know anybody was listening,” she said when she got off the phone.

Instead of heading back to Nairobi immediately to do media interviews as she was advised, she continued on to a meeting she’d set up weeks before with her constituents. She explained she’d won a very great prize, but then got down to the agenda. That, too, was classic Wangari. I and a member of her staff were left to try to answer calls from the world’s media in, literally, a field. I reflected on that day for an article on how Kenya and Kenyans are reacting to Wangari’s death published Tuesday in the U.K. Independent.

Martin, Wangari, and I kept working on the autobiography we’d first mooted in 2001, which became Unbowed: A Memoir, published in 2006. We worked on two other books together: The Challenge for Africa (2008), a manifesto on African sustainable development, democratization, and governance; and most recently, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010), an exploration of the values, like love for the environment and selfless service, that underpinned Wangari’s life, and how others could embrace them.

The Green Belt Movement and Brighter Green also collaborated, particularly on projects related to climate change. In 2009, for example, at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen, we co-sponsored a panel on global warming, forests, livelihoods, and livestock. It was a thrill for me to present alongside Wangari about Brighter Green’s work on the global spread of intensive animal agriculture and its consequences (PDF). At that conference, as in all contexts, Wangari was indefatigable: speaking on panels, doing media interviews, opening the high level dialogue, and staying up all night in the conference hall to hear out the final negotiations—then having to rush back to her hotel and pack in less than an hour.

In recent days, many people have commented on Wangari’s vitality and how incongruous that is with her death. It’s true: she had a fierce energy. And she shared it. When you were with her, you felt enlivened; obstacles seemed less insurmountable; setbacks and dispiriting news about work, or more often, the state of the world, didn’t feel as leaden. Wangari was powerful; brilliant and bold; purposeful and persistent (definitely a workaholic); funny; focused; canny; and perhaps more than anything, generous. She was a heroine to me to the end, as well as a mentor and friend. I will miss her terribly.

If you’d like to honor Wangari’s extraordinary life and work, please plant a tree—or trees—wherever you are, or support tree planting and protection of indigenous forests in other regions of the world. Please also consider making a donation to the memorial fund in Wangari’s memory the Green Belt Movement has established. To learn more about her life and perspectives, read her books: Unbowed, The Challenge for Africa, Replenishing the Earth (2010), and The Green Belt Movement.

This is one of my favorite quotes of Wangari’s, from Unbowed. It’s a sentiment I’m trying to hold on to and amplify, including through the work of Brighter Green:

Those of us who witness the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless. If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe