Thirty years ago, she encouraged a group of ordinary Kenyan women to plant trees. Today, more than 30 million trees later, Dr. Wangari Maathai is anything but ordinary. She is the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, a member of Kenya’s parliament and so much more. Her list of accolades is long, but even more impressive is how many people all over the world are paying attention to what she has to say.
“Action is an important activity if you’re going to make a difference,” noted Dr. Maathai to a packed auditorium at the University of St. Thomas campus in St. Paul on March 12. “To talk is one thing; to take action is something very different.”
Dr. Maathai caught the attention of the Nobel Peace Prize Committee for her efforts in organizing the Green Belt Movement (GBM) — a non-governmental international organization that advocates community development and environmental conservation.
Dr. Maathai’s mission started in 1974. After earning her doctorate degree in anatomy from the University of Nairobi, Dr. Maathai became active in the National Council of Women of Kenya. She encouraged women to plant trees, not just for the sake of the environment, but more importantly, for empowerment of the Kenyan women who then felt completely dependent on their husbands.
There’s no particular reason why she chose trees to plant. “Trees were just what came to my mind at the time,” said Dr. Maathai during her presentation at St. Thomas.
The trees in Kenya grew, and so did the appreciation of the women who planted them. Kenya’s countryside is now millions of trees greener, and the movement has spawned similar initiatives in many African countries.
“My message simply isn’t about planting trees,” said Dr. Maathai, “It’s about inspiring people to do more. We need to take exemplary measures in taking care of our planet. We need to use resources properly to take care of ourselves; we can do a lot.”
Dr. Maathai has found a link between improving the environment and restoring peace. She noted that if individuals rethink the concept of conservation and peace, “We are more likely to be at peace with each other. If we don’t, we are more likely to be at war, as there is a competition of resources and space.”
“Dr. Maathai is an inspiration to all African Americans, as she is the first African woman to do a lot of things,” said Emily Trievel, program officer for the GBM. Trievel travels with Dr. Maathai in North and South America where presentations are given to community groups, church organizations, corporate employees such as IBM, and university students.
Among Dr. Maathai’s list of accomplishments include the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, the first woman in the Nairobi region to become an associate professor in the Department of Veterinary Anatomy at the University Nairobi, and the first woman to become the chair of the same department. She also went on to direct the Kenya Red Cross and has addressed the United Nations on many occasions.
“I think many men and women can take a lot from what she has said tonight,” said Trievel of Dr. Maathai. “If you keep speaking up, you’ll eventually be heard.”