October 2011

Wangar Maathi: A biologist by training, she founded the Greenbelt Movement and made visible the links between trees and soil, war and peace, and the human body and spirit. (Photo: Lisa Merton)

In Memorium: Wangari Maathai

‘…this woman had stood up to a dictator and won, and had fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant tens of millions of trees’


By Krista Tippett

Wangari Maathai, the first African woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize, died on September 25. A biologist by training, she founded the Greenbelt Movement and made visible the links between trees and soil, war and peace, and the human body and spirit. Maathai was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and recipient of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize. Her books include Replenishing the Earth and Unbowed: A Memoir.

I 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 my 2006 interview with her (see the link at the bottom of this page). 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.

Excerpt from Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income.
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.

Excerpt from Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

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.

We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, realized long ago: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that "when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint." In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in the Kenyan post-election violence in 2008.

‘We're in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature.’

As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. She told me that she had often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing--the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. "Now where is God?," Wangari Maathai asked me in response. Here's how she answered her own question:

"I tell myself that of course now we're in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it's a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He's in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color ... I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya--it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area--that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."

In this beautifully animated clip from Dirt! The Movie, Wangari Maathai tells an inspiring tale of doing the best you can under seemingly interminable odds.

Wangari Maathai is survived by her three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.

In our interview this remarkable Kenyan woman, Wangari Maathai, spoke from experience about the links between ecology, human flourishing, war and peace, and democracy--and her thoughts on where God resides.

To download or listen online to Krista Tippett's unedited interview with Wangari Maathai, visit the Krista Tippett on Being website.


Wangari Maathai plants a tree next to a construction site in Nagakute in Aichi prefecture, Japan. (Photo: Toshifumi Kitamura/AFP/Getty Images)

Wangari Maathi: In Her Own Words

On her early spiritual upbringing with the Italian Catholic Missionary Sisters: “They served selflessly. They gave a hand, like Peter did. They are like flowers that bloom, that smile, even when you don’t give them water.”

About the Benedictines: “They treated me as if I were their daughter. They gave and gave to everyone. I think this is where I got my deep sense of service and my detachment from things material.”

About being true to one’s self: “Always follow a small voice that all of us have, a small voice that comes from deep within, a small voice that I have come to identify as the God in you. God whispers to you and if your heart is pure, you can hear it. Follow that voice. Be committed to it, be persistent with it, be patient with it.”

On her 1980s divorce from her husband Mwang, a member of Parliament: in her autobiography Unbowed she attributed their split to her activism and said Mwang called her “too educated, too, strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.”

Tributes to Wangari Maathi poured in from all over the world upon news of her death. Continue on for a sampling of reflections on her life and achievements by President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, HRH The Prince of Wales, Alice Walker and others.


Wangari Maathi: ‘Her legacy will stand as an example to all of us to persist in our pursuit of progress.’ –President Barack Obama (Photo: Martin Rowe)

Wangari Maathi: The Measure of the Woman

President Barack Obama
It is with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Professor Wangari Maathai. On behalf of all Americans, Michelle and I send our deepest condolences to Professor Maathai’s family and the people of Kenya at this difficult time. The world mourns with you and celebrates the extraordinary life of this remarkable woman who devoted her life to peacefully protecting what she called “our common home and future.” The work of the Greenbelt Movement stands as a testament to the power of grassroots organizing, proof that one person’s simple idea--that a community should come together to plant trees--can make a difference, first in one village, then in one nation, and now across Africa. Professor Maathai’s tireless efforts earned her not only a Nobel Peace Prize and numerous prestigious awards, but the respect of millions who were inspired by her commitment to conservation, democracy, women’s empowerment, the eradication of poverty, and civic engagement. Professor Maathai further advanced these objectives through her service in the Kenyan government, the African Union, and the United Nations. As she told the world, “We must not tire, we must not give up, we must persist.” Her legacy will stand as an example to all of us to persist in our pursuit of progress.


Wangari Maathai and The Green Belt Movement: ‘It’s very, very important to continue encouraging our governments and ourselves that the environment is not only an issue for tomorrow. The environment is an every day issue: it’s the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the food we eat. And we can’t live without these things.


Mwenda Mbaka
‘Go on, Mama, go. We need an emissary to God.’

71 trees for 71 years

a tree a year, 71 trees in 71 years…she planted more

and she shed a flood of tears for the trees

yet to plant


imagine…just imagine…if you care to…just imagine!

if 71 of us, or 710 of us, or 7,100 of us, or 71, 000 of us, or 710,000 of us …

or 7,100,000 of us, or 71,000,000 of us

each planted a tree a year for another 71 years

how many trees would we give some life to…even in 71 years short!

imagine…just imagine…if you care to…just imagine!

imagine the shelter to the eyes of those beloved
that we leave behind!

imagine the shelter from the bitter tears

that we now so carelessly put in stock

for those beloved we will leave behind!


Wangari…why are you so different!

is it your guts, or your wits, or your heart?!

Is it a talent, or effort or fate!

and now, why you? a mentor, a meteor, a sweet sun set too soon?


…hey you all! here we are, helpless as a creeper without a staff

…not a man man enough, would let you go, Wangari Mama

O yes Mama!!! not a man man enough

but then? which man was man enough to halt fate!


So go…go on Mama go. We need an emissary to God

go Mama go…fare thee well

go darling…go Mama…go and give us a reason to shed the tears

give us a reason to plant 71 trees

give us a reason to feel silly..foolish and squanderous

to let your lesson not stir us up

to not plant 71 trees

in another 71 years!


Excerpt from the educational DVD Life With Principle: a sketch of Wangari Maathai’s activist life


HRH The Prince of Wales

There are few people who have had such a profound impact on the future direction of humanity than Wangari Maathai. Her understanding of the link between human poverty and the quality of the natural environment undoubtedly influenced a generation of environmentalists and policymakers. It is a tribute to her passionate determination that so many people feel such a deep sense of loss at her passing. I was fortunate enough to work closely with Wangari on a number of occasions over the years and every time I met her I was struck by both the force of her personality and the quality of her intellect. Her passion shone through in everything she did, from her work on women’s equality to her tireless championing of the rainforests. I, like so many others, will miss her more than it is possible to describe and send my most heartfelt condolences to her children and to everyone who knew her, loved her and depended upon her.


Hillary Rodham Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State
I was deeply saddened to learn of the death of Wangari Maathai. The world has lost a powerful force for peace, democracy and women?s rights.

From early on, Dr. Maathai was a tireless advocate for the environment, for women and for all those in the developing world who are unable to realize their potential. She founded the Green Belt Movement that has planted millions of trees and helped women throughout Africa improve their lives and the futures of their families and their communities. She understood the deep connection between local and global problems, and she helped give ordinary citizens a voice. Her death has left a gaping hole among the ranks of women leaders, but she leaves behind a solid foundation for others to build upon. I was inspired by her story and proud to call her my friend.

My thoughts and prayers are with her three children, Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.


Alice Walker, Novelist and Poet
I remember her wonderful smile and joyful laugh. And eating together ? with a daughter and son-in-law- a sacred meal at a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco. We were sisters in every way and I loved her before I met her and after. We discovered we share the name Wangari, as preposterous as that may seem. When I was a student visiting villages in Kenya I was given this name and told it meant I belonged to the Leopard clan. What a delight to be connected in this way with a leopard clan sister that planted trees!

What we leave behind us is our spirit, which can be shared by anyone with the courage and love to do so. Wangari Maathai’s spirit is a feast of love and joy, honor and determination, incredible will.

She loved this Earth, our big beautiful mother, and now she has gone back home to her. I imagine the celebration as Mother reclaims (Well done!) her beloved daughter and Wangari’s spirit experiences the blessed relief of honorable return.


Wangari Maathai’s message on climate change sent to the G8/G20 meeting in Toronto. Filmed in Uganda.


The Norwegian Nobel Committee
It was with great sadness the message was received that professor Wangari Mathaai had passed away.

She was highly respected and admired not only for her pioneer work for environmental protection and sustainable development, but also for her work for women’s rights and democracy.

She was among the first to set the agenda for tree planting and forest protection, and among the first to see and advocate the important connection between the environment and development.

Not only was she the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, but also the first to receive the prize for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.

She will be remembered as the very friendly and humble person she was, for her intellectual strength and for her strong and genuine conviction and ability to engage people.

Kenya and the international society have lost a bold and persuasive spokeswoman for the global work on sustainable development and democracy.

Her legacy will always remain with us. The deep sympathy of the Norwegian Government is hereby conveyed to professor Mathaai’s family, close friends and colleagues--and to the Kenyan people--for this significant and painful loss.


Message from Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Rigoberta Menchú Tum, and Mairead Maguire
We are terribly saddened by the death of our beloved friend and sister Nobel Peace Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai.  Wangari was a true visionary whose work and life served as a powerful example to women everywhere. She showed us that the eradication of poverty, the empowerment of women, and a sustainable future for our planet are all essential building blocks of a more just and peaceful world. She lived her belief that all of us have a role to play in creating sustainable peace.

It has been a great privilege to know and work with Wangari through our joint efforts in the Nobel Women's Initiative, launched in January 2006. Her tireless commitment to humanity was evident in everything she did--from planting trees and listening to women in refugee camps to amplifying the voices of the disempowered to leaders and decision makers around the globe

Wangari's fearless strength in adversity, her creative approach to building a peaceful, healthy planet and her hard work to inspire and empower women will live on. Her passion and commitment have moved countless people to take action to improve their communities. We will miss her great shining smile and her indomitable spirit but all those she has inspired will keep her vision alive through each small action we take toward a better world.


A Voice for Trees, with Wangari Maathai: ‘Why not plant trees?’


Stephen D. Minnis, president of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. Benedictine College, formerly known as Mount St. Scholastica, is Maathai’s alma mater.
When you were with Wangari Maathai, you knew you were in the presence of greatness, but she put you perfectly at ease. She had such a winning personality and strong will. It is hard to imagine this world without her. We are lucky she has walked amongst us and she will be sorely missed.

Many more tributes to Wangari Maathai are posted at the Greenbelt Movement website http://wangari.greenbeltmovement.org/

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