Wangari Maathai (1940-2011)

I was getting my daughter dressed Monday morning this week when I heard on CBC Radio that Wangari Maathai had passed away in Nairobi, Kenya.  My daughter noticed the sadness on my face immediately and came to give me a reassuring hug.  I collected myself quickly at the time but have been thinking of her all week as I often do since being introduced to her work many years ago.

In early 2000 I was a young environmentalist facing mounting frustration at the slow pace of change in Canada.  As I looked farther afield I found three people doing exceptional work in harsh conditions; Wangari Maathai in Kenya, Ken Saro Wiwa in Nigeria and Chico Mendes in Brazil.  I am now a slightly older environmentalist thankful I have not been killed for my efforts as Ken Saro Wiwa and Chico Mendes were or brutally beaten and jailed as Wangari Maathai was several times during her life.

It is a rude awakening to recognize that the struggle for environmental protection can be life threatening – but it is also exciting to witness the outcomes that result from such a profound connection to global issues bigger than one individual. 

Wangari Maathai has always seemed larger than life to me.  The first African women to earn a PhD in 1971.  The founder of the Green Belt Movement in 1977 – responsible for planting over 47 million trees.  Trees planted not just to protect the fragile soil but to strengthen communities and bring families, especially women out of poverty.  In 2002 she was elected as a Member of Parliament and in 2003 appointed Deputy Minister for the Environment in Kenya.

The world stood up and noticed Wangari Maathai in 2004 when she was the first African women and Environmentalist  to win the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of her work for sustainable development, democracy, and peace.  Since then she has been unrelenting in her effort to protect the planet and democracy globally.

Wangari Maathai died of cancer Sunday night survived by three children and one grand-daughter.  The future generations she always kept front of mind.  I am comforted a little by the legacy she has left and the multitude of young and slightly older environmentalists she has inspired to keep going, as if our lives depended on it.