09/29/2011 04:02 pm ET | Updated Nov 29, 2011

Wangari Maathai: Colleague, Friend, Inspiration

Wangari Maathai's was a life of firsts -- and many parts. Visionary founder of the Green Belt Movement, Maathai was an advocate in Africa and beyond for social justice, human rights, democracy, and peace.

I had the privilege of knowing and working with Wangari for a decade, beginning in 2001. Wangari served on the advisory board of Brighter Green, the New York-based public policy action tank I run. And in turn, I am on the board of directors of the Green Belt Movement (GMB)-North America, which supports GBM's work in Kenya.

On Monday, Wangari was "trending" on Twitter all day. "What's Twitter?" I can hear her asking. One tweet reported that Wangari was the first African woman to trend -- another first to add to this catalogue: first woman in east and central Africa to earn a Ph.D., first African woman and first environmentalist to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (in 2004). She was even born on a first, of April.

I first learned about her work with GBM to restore degraded environments through planting trees while providing income and agency for rural Kenyans -- mainly women -- when I was a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. I was struck by this approach, so unusual was it in the annals of international development. It bridged sectors normally kept separate: the environment, gender, poverty alleviation, governance, and even self-help.

In the late 1980s and 1990s, Wangari and the Green Belt Movement had also become keenly engaged in Kenya's struggle to restore multi-party democracy. She led high-profile efforts to halt construction of a skyscraper in Uhuru ("Freedom") Park, an oasis of green, public space in congested downtown Nairobi and stop the "grabbing" of public land in forests by cronies of the notoriously corrupt then-president Daniel arap Moi.

The government didn't like her outspokenness. She was beaten, jailed, and vilified by the regime, derided for daring, as a woman, to challenge its prerogatives, and even evicted from her office. When Nairobi landlords were too scared to rent her suitable space, she moved the Green Belt Movement's operations — and its 50 or so staff — to her modest home in the city. That was Wangari. She would not be silenced; she would not be side-lined, either.

I first got to meet her in Nairobi in the summer of 2001 to talk to her about her writing her autobiography. "Do you think anyone would be interested?" she asked my partner Martin Rowe and me. "Yes," we said, "absolutely, particularly those working in global civil society." We added something like, "You've had a very interesting life." To which she raised an eyebrow and replied, "Do you think so?"

In October 2004, Wangari learned she'd won the Nobel. I was with her when she got the news, heading to her parliamentary constituency over rutted roads in rural Kenya. She had been elected to parliament when Kenya held its first free and fair elections in a generation in 2002. Wangari was disbelieving; never had she expected such an honor. "I didn't know anybody was listening," she said when she got off the phone.

Instead of heading back to Nairobi to do media interviews as she was advised, she continued on to a meeting she'd set up with her constituents. She explained she had won a very great prize, and then proceeded to the planned discussion. That, too, was emblematic of Wangari's commitment to those she served. I and a member of her staff were left to try to answer calls from the world's media in a field (literally).

Martin, Wangari, and I kept working on the autobiography we'd first mooted in 2001, which became Unbowed: A Memoir, published in 2006. We worked on two other books together: The Challenge for Africa (2008), a manifesto on African sustainable development, democratization, and governance and most recently, Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World (2010), an exploration of the values, like love for the environment and selfless service, that underpinned Wangari's life, and how others could embrace them.

The Green Belt Movement and Brighter Green also collaborated, particularly on projects related to climate change.

In recent days, many people have commented on Wangari's vitality; how could she be gone?. It's true: she had a fierce energy, which she shared. With her, you felt enlivened; obstacles seemed less insurmountable, setbacks and dispiriting news about work, or more often, the state of the world, didn't feel as leaden. Wangari was powerful, brilliant and bold, purposeful and persistent (definitely a workaholic), funny, focused, canny, and perhaps more than anything, generous. She was a heroine to me, as well as a mentor and friend. I will miss her deeply.

One of my favorite quotes of Wangari's, from Unbowed is this.

Those of us who witness the degraded state of the environment and the suffering that comes with it cannot afford to be complacent. We continue to be restless. If we really carry the burden, we are driven to action. We cannot tire or give up. We owe it to the present and future generations of all species to rise up and walk!

Disclosure: I was compensated by Wangari for work on her books and by the Green Belt Movement for some other writing projects. I receive no compensation for serving on the GBM-North America board.