By now you have heard that Wangari Maathai has died. I feel especially blessed to have met this remarkable woman before and after she became known on the world stage.
Professor Maathai founded the Greenbelt Movement in Kenya, standing courageously against poverty, environmental degradation, government corruption and a violent campaign to silence her. She was a consummate systems thinker and justainability advocate, before the term was coined. She believed that peace required full stomachs, productively engaged hands, land that could provide for its people, and an awakened community – particularly women – who were fully aware of their power to resist oppression. She believed that caring for the land was everyone’s responsibility, and that justice depended on it. Over the space of some 30 years, the Movement has planted and nurtured more than 30 million trees! As political reforms came to national politics, she served as deputy minister for agriculture. In 2004, Professor Maathai was the first African woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace and continued to advocate for peace at home and around the world.
In 2002, Professor Maathai visited Boston with our colleague Danny Martin to explore U.S. movement building strategies. She spent a day teaching and learning with us at IISC. She conveyed her joy in reconnecting women to the land, helping people to understand the wider forces affecting their communities, and enabling them to discover their capacity to make change. Her deepest delight on our tour of Boston neighborhoods was walking through community gardens, breathing in the smell of damp soil and watching community members tend lovingly to their plants.
In 2008, we met again. This time it was in Juba, South Sudan, for a conference with peace-seeking women from across Sudan, along with their countrywomen from the U.S.-based Sisterhood for Peace and the Nobel Women’s Initiative. There, Professor Maathai listened compassionately to sisters from her neighboring country, encouraging them to find strength in one another and the justice of their cause.
Throughout her life, Professor Maathai remained resolute that injustice could and should be opposed, and that ordinary people working together could bring about remarkable changes. At the same time, she was a gentle, unassuming soul who carried herself with the grace of a woman who knew she was powerful and intended to use that power for the greater good. May she rest in peace and may we walk our paths with equal grace and determination.