Monday, September 26, 2011

She spoke for trees and people: In Memory of Wangari Maathai

The world just lost one of its greatest environmentalists. Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan woman who started the Greenbelt Movement, died yesterday.

A snapshot of Greenbelt Movement's home page today

I never met Wangari Maathai, but she had a profound influence on my understanding of what I think this world needs and how we should go about doing it. She will be remembered and indeed, her work will live on if we continue to live better through environmental stewardship.

There is a lot out there on Maathai so I would prefer to focus on her impact on my life instead of reporting from other new sources about her achievements and life.

In 2004, I read in the MU Environmental Studies newsletter about how Maathai had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in helping reduce poverty and conflict by empowering women to plant trees. I was president of an organization called Sustain Mizzou at the time, and within the year we wrote into our mission statement about the interconnection of human welfare and the environment. I am not sure it was her direct influence, but she had gotten me thinking about how humans really benefit from ecosystems.

In my “last lesson” at PS/MS 15 in June 2010, after teaching science and math for three years in the Bronx, NY, I presented a series of four quotes to my 7th graders. One quote was from Aldo Leopold, one from Chico Mendes, and two from Wangari Maathai. I asked the students to read them and then facilitated a discussion about what they thought the speakers meant and what it meant for us. The quotes were largely about the role of humans and especially about how youth have the power to stand up for what they believe and try to make the world a better place. It was a discussion that had no right or wrong answers but in their thoughtful interpretations and analysis, my students showed me they had been learning all along.

In May 2011, as the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Environment Club was about to start one of its main projects for the year, I printed a letter that Maathai wrote about the importance of planting African trees (and not just fast-growing Australian eucalyptus trees) in Africa. We read the article and discussed what it meant to us. Since then the club and all the students of Agahozo have removed invasive species from a small plot of land to protect over 50+ native trees. We have collected seeds and started many seedlings for planting. We had an Environment Day event that highlighted the importance of trees. Most recently, this past Saturday, we planted nearly 300 native trees along the fence at Agahozo.

An Agahozo Environment Club member and Michele plant a native
tree (African Tulip (Spathodea campanulata) along the edge
of Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village on September 25, 2011.

It was today, September 26, at the end of our 7pm weekly club meeting that the club president, a first year student at ASYV, came up to me and said he had something to tell me. He said he was listening to the radio yesterday and that the lady that protected the environment in Kenya had died. I was shocked. He told me that she died of cancer. I looked it up afterward, and sure enough, she died at age 71 of ovarian cancer (the same disease that took my maternal grandmother).

In this conversation, the club president told me he was very sad. I told him something that I believe, and that I hope he will remember always. I said that we have made our last year about planting and protecting African trees. She may be gone, and it is very sad, but she can live on if we keep protecting the environment. I looked at him and said, “She will live on through you.”

Seedlings of native Kigelia africana started by students at Agahozo-
Shalom Youth Village. Some day these little seedlings will be large
shade trees for everyone to enjoy.

You can read more about Wangari Maathai and her work at:

New York Times Obituary 

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