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Wangari Maathai and Why She Matters

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Wangari Maathai died Sunday night. Her death diminishes our planet, but her dreams continue. Though most Americans have never heard of her, I invite you to learn why so many of us in the world mourn today.

I met Dr. Maathai in the summer of 2007. My children's school has an intentional partnership with a school in Kenya, and I was honored to host some Kenyan teachers in our home a few months earlier. When I learned that Dr. Maathai would address the congregation of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, I went with eagerness. I met her, her daughter, Wanjira, and some of the nuns who taught her in college. Wanjira and I exchanged information and we never connected again -- until the election crisis a few months later.

When Kenya had their election, the U.S. State Department congratulated them. I grieved because I knew, from conversations with friends in Kenya, that there was nothing to celebrate. In the next days and weeks, people died. The day that 98 people died when a church was set afire in Eldoret, our U.S. press led with stories, musing whether or not a singer wears undergarments.

In my fury, anger and despair I contacted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who responded with compassion and encouragement. I was in continual contact with people in Eldoret, Nairobi and Washington, D.C. The courage and encouragement of Archbishop Tutu and Dr. Maathai compelled me to call people I had no business calling: I spoke with members of the Intelligence Committee (I found out people care if you reminded them of the 1998 bombings in Nairobi), Foreign Relations Committee and Congressional Black Caucus. I am eternally grateful for those who cared and listened, Republican and Democrat.

And this is when I learned what courage looks like. Leaders in Kenya were asking for other nations to intercede (eventually a thousand people died). Leaders in the U.N. and the U.S. said that they needed to be invited to speak. It was during this time that Dr. Maathai, at great personal risk, wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal inviting international involvement. She wrote:

Despite the insistence by some of the protagonists that outside intervention is not required, more public and international pressure is essential if Mr. Kibaki and Mr. Odinga are to seek a lasting solution. Despite the suffering of the Kenyan people, and others in the region that depend on Kenya's functioning infrastructure and economy, moves toward dialogue have been disturbingly slow.


The next day the U.S. government and the United Nations began to intercede, adding to those in African Union and other African nations who had already sought to bring peace. Dr. Maathai wrote in Kenya's The Daily Nation:

It began with the arrival of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and was quickly followed by four former presidents -- Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda, Botswana's Ketumile Masire, Mozambique's Joaquim Chissano, and Tanzania's Benjamin Mkapa. This was followed by the then chairman of the African Union, President John Kufuor of Ghana, who subsequently dispatched Mr Annan, Mrs Graca Machel and Mr Mkapa to Nairobi. ... This is the 21st century and the world should not stand by and watch as citizens are incited to kill and maim because politicians cannot agree on how to manage the State.

In the Washington Post she wrote: "All of this takes leadership -- not just from elites but from all of us. This is the only path toward a solution to Kenya's current crisis and a lasting peace."

During this time, the Maathai home was attacked and she was tear-gassed by the police. Dr. Maathai knew the threat of opening her mouth. She was beaten before for challenging the Moi government. She led mothers in their protest of unjust imprisonment in 1992; the mothers simply wanted to know where their children were being held and the government would not reveal their whereabouts. They camped in Uhuru Park in Kenya, with a corner of a tent entitled "Freedom Corner," where they heard the stories of torture and unjust imprisonment. She wrote, "The story of Freedom Corner did not end with my hospitalization or the dispersal of the mothers. We remained unbowed" ("Unbowed," p. 222). During this time, as she was carried from court to Nairobi Hospital, she saw a banner from the women's rights group Mothers in Action that read: "Wangari, Brave Daughter of Kenya, You Will Never Walk Alone" (p. 215).

Mama Wangari's indomitable spirit is reflected in her name. Her ex-husband wanted Dr. Maathai to change her name, and she did -- by adding an "a" (her daughter, the executive director of The Greenbelt Movement, is Wanjira Mathai).

Every time you plant a tree or advocate for justice or admire the colors of Autumn, remember Dr. Maathai, brave and unbowed. And may we each have the courage to live as she did.

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