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.

In May 2004, I read about how Maathai had just been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in helping to 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. Taking inspiration from her philosophy and our quest to be non-partisan, we wrote, "Sustain Mizzou recognizes that a clean and healthy environment is a right to all humans and other life forms. Clean water and air, viable land, and otherwise sustainable resources are not political issues, but inherent human rights, applicable to all people, regardless of affiliation." I think she would have agreed.

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. One of her quotes read, "“I would like to call on young people to take inspiration from the Nobel Peace Prize. I want them to know that despite the challenges and constraints they face, there is hope. I want to encourage them to serve the common good. My experiences have taught me that service to others has its own special rewards. I also have a lot of hope in youth. Their minds do not have to be held back by old thinking about the environment. And you don’t have to be rich or give up everything to become active. Even simply using both sides of a piece of paper before recycling is conserving the environment" (2004, Greenbelt Movement website). It's a strong message, and my students thought so too.

In May 2011, as the Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village Environment Club was about to select 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 letter 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 seedlings for planting. We had an Environment Day event that highlighted the importance of trees and featured a tree give-away. 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.

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. I said that we have made our last year about planting and protecting African trees, which was a huge part of her mission. 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.” For trees, people, and a peaceful planet, I hope she continues to live on through us all.

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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