By Sister Sharon Havelak, OSF
One of my personal heroes died this past month. I’ve never met her, never even heard her speak. I’ve just followed her story from afar for the past several years. What I like best, I think, is that it’s a “messy” story, filled with real struggles and real obstacles. Right now, I need to get to know Wangari Maathai better.
Reading the many obituaries that have been published since her death on September 25, 2011, one finds accolade after accolade. She’s received many honors, not the least of which is winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, the first African woman to receive the award. Maathai is best known for her work with the Green Belt Movement, which focused on reforesting Kenya and, in the process, improving the lives of poor women by paying them a few shillings to plant a tree. The Green Belt Movement’s mission is to fight erosion across Kenya by planting trees, creating firewood for fuel and providing work for women. Across Africa, over 40 million trees have been planted; over 900,000 women’s lives have been changed.
Her educational background (BA in biology at Mount Scholastica College, Atchison, KS; Master of Science from the University of Pittsburgh and Doctorate in veterinary science from the University of Nairobi) and her early experience, led her to the conviction of the interconnection between environmental degradation and poverty. She saw the simple act of planting a tree as a steppingstone for change on multiple levels. In awarding her the Peace Prize, the Nobel committee noted her “holistic approach to sustainable development that embraces democracy, human rights and women’s rights in particular.”
Maathai’s story amazes me because, well, planting a tree hardly seems revolutionary. But, in her case, it was. Her strength of character and determination to live her convictions led to the perception of her being “uppity,” the Green Belt Movement as “subversive.” She was arrested, beaten, the victim of political ploys to undermine her cause. Through it all, she remained steadfast.
As I reflect on Wangari Maathai’s life, I want to keep two things, in particular, in my heart. First is the simple story she tells in Dirt! The Movie of a hummingbird who, drop by drop, carries water in his beak to quench a forest fire, while all the other, larger animals watch helplessly. They chide him for his seemingly futile attempts and the hummingbird responds, “I’m doing the best I can.” “That”, says Maathai, “is what we are all called to do.” (Watch the 2-minute video at www.dirtthemovie.org.)
Second, I hope never to underestimate the power of a simple idea, a seemingly insignificant act – like planting a tree – that might just unleash a revolution. And may I have a bit of your courage to see it through. Thank you, Wangari Maathai!