Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Thanks, Wangari Maathai!


Wangari Maathai died of ovarian cancer on Sunday, September 25.  She was 71 years old.  A senior government official said she may be accorded a State funeral although this was not confirmed. She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977 her native Kenya whereby she engaged thousands of women to plant trees as a means of saving the eroding environment. 

Here is a report from AllAfrica.com that announced her death and listed some of her accomplishments:
Prof Maathai was the inspiration behind UNEP's Billion Tree Campaign, which was launched in 2006. She became a patron of the campaign, inspiring thousands of people across the world to plant trees for the benefit of their communities. To date, more than 11 billion trees have been planted as part of the campaign.
She was born near Nyeri in Kenya's Central Highlands in 1940 and received her education in Kenya and the USA, from where she earned a Bachelors degree from Mount St. Scholastica College and a Masters degree from the University of Pittsburgh. She was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, obtaining it from the University of Nairobi in 1971.
In December 2002, Professor Maathai was elected to Kenya's parliament and appointed assistant minister for Environment and natural resources. The celebrated laureate has won more than 40 major awards in her life, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, and authored four books. She is survived by her three children: Waweru, Wanjira and Muta, and her granddaughter, Ruth Wangari.
I heard her speak when she came to Kalamazoo a few years ago as a participant in PeaceJam.  Unfortunately, I did not write a story about her but found a fine tribute from Sharon Astyk, blogger of Casaubon's Book.
Dr. Wangari Maathai died on Sunday at 71, of ovarian cancer. It is interesting to me that so many of the obituaries get her work wrong - consider what the New York Times says:
Dr. Maathai, one of the most widely respected women on the continent, wore many hats -- environmentalist, feminist, politician, professor, rabble-rouser, human rights advocate and head of the Green Belt Movement, which she founded in 1977. Its mission was to plant trees across Kenya to fight erosion and to create firewood for fuel and jobs for women.
It is a small error, but an important one. Maathai did not wear many hats - it was all one hat. Her role empowering and educating women, repairing and protecting her beloved nation, mitigating climate change and improving the lives of the poorest people around her by enabling their subsistence, calling for justice at every turn - it was and is all one work. Maathai's great gift was her ability to see the intersection between environmental, economic, political and gender justice - and that it is not possible to repair just one piece of the world at a time.
I think it is easier to imagine that being a feminist and an environmentalist are two different things, easier to imagine that caring about human rights and deforestation are two kinds of caring. In fact, Maathai saw a whole where we are falsely inclined to see pieces. It was her vision that was right.
 Here is a video of her approach to development and job creation:





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