In Memoriam: Dr. Wangari Maathai

I THINK that I shall never see

A poem lovely as a tree…

        ~  TREES, by Joyce Kilmer

On Sunday September 25, 2011 one of my heroes passed from this world to the next after a long battle with cancer. Sadly, as I write that the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize has passed on, many will not recognize her name or the magnificent smile that lit up her beautiful face.

Wangari Muta Maathai, as the website for the organization that she founded states, truly lived a “life of firsts.” Born in Kenya in 1940, she was fortunate to be educated at a time when most girls in her country were not. She was later awarded a scholarship to study in the United States. After earning her Bachelors and Masters degrees in the US, she returned to Kenya in 1966 where she went on to become the first woman in Kenya, and all of East and Central Africa, to earn her Ph.D.  Dr. Maathai was the first female professor and department chair at University of Nairobi.

As stated on the website,  “In the 1970s Professor Maathai became active in a number of environmental and humanitarian organizations in Nairobi, including the National Council of Women of Kenya (NCWK). Through her work representing women academics in the NCWK, she spoke to rural women and learned from them about the deteriorating environmental and social conditions affecting poor, rural Kenyans — especially women. The women told her that they lacked firewood for cooking and heating, that clean water was scarce and nutritious food was limited.

Professor Maathai suggested to them that planting trees might be an answer. The trees would provide wood for cooking, fodder for livestock, and material for fencing; they would protect watersheds and stabilize the soil, improving agriculture. This was the beginning of the Green Belt Movement (GBM), which was formally established in 1977. GBM has since mobilized hundreds of thousands of women and men to plant more than 47 million trees, restoring degraded environments and improving the quality of life for people in poverty.”

To the world she was many things:  A Nobel Peace Laureate, an environmentalist and scientist. She was  a champion of human rights for all, and women in particular. Dr. Maathai was a strong, clear voice for democracy and social justice but, above all, a peacemaker.  For me she was anEarth Mother and my favourite tree hugger.  Her efforts, combined with that of the United Nations Environment Programme, met the goal of planting more than a billion trees worldwide in less than a year.  A BILLION trees!  Her efforts to help the impoverished feed and provide for themselves as well as sustain the environment are as admirable as they are lauded by numerous organizations the world over. She leaves an impressive legacy that, if nurtured, will impact generations to come for a very long time. For Dr. Maathai is a reminder that with faith, courage and a determination as strong and steady as the sturdiest oak tree, we can move not just mountains but people and governments too.

Rest peacefully now, Dr./Mother Maathai!  Your work was truly well done; you will always be remembered as one of the world’s best teachers. Among your greatest lessons is the life you lived.  For me and for many, many people the world over you were and will always be an inspiration.  I am pleased that, like the light of the sun, I felt the warmth of your smile…for a time.


Post submitted, with deepest respect and admiration, by Mia Imani.




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