The late Nobel Peace Prize winner and renowned environmental and human rights activist Wangari Maathai has been a long time heroine and source of inspiration for kanju. Her acclaimed 2006 memoir, Unbowed, is a book, and Ms. Maathai the type of inspirational leader, that we all need right now. Hers was a life of service marked by the breaking of boundaries—refusing to ever let the word impossible enter her mind. Among her many achievements, she was the founder of the Green Belt Movement and a lifelong planter of trees, and Wangari Maathai’s life work, legacy and style of leadership can all be summed up in two words: persistence and dedication. One foot in front of the other; one seedling in the ground at a time. Nurture growth. Be patient, but be steadfast and unrelenting in your commitment.
Ms. Maathai’s relevance as a guide to us all would be unquestioned at any moment in time, but it feels especially so right now. Her lifetime spanned a world of immense change at great scale. Over the course of her life, she witnessed her nation of Kenya move from colonialism to independence and evolve to nationhood and democracy. She consistently achieved honors and a long list of “firsts” that would have been unheard of for a rural Kenyan woman at the time of her birth. From earning university and Master degrees in the United States, to obtaining a PhD and becoming the first woman professor and university Department Chair in Kenya, she went on to Direct the Kenyan branch of the Red Cross, play significant roles in the UN, and hold a seat in Parliament. She earned over a dozen honorary degrees and many more international awards, and upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 was the first African woman to do so. Through it all, she endured difficult and painful personal hardships, advocated persistently and unabashedly for free speech and human rights, tirelessly supported democratic initiatives on behalf of herself and her countrymen and women, and planted thousands upon thousands of trees.
It would be impossible to capture the true essence or legacy of Wangari Maathai without understanding her passion for the environment and her lifelong project of planting trees as core to her belief in devoted action. Ms. Maathai understood that complex issues of democracy-building require collaboration and empowerment from a grass-roots level and that, much like growing and nurturing trees, the process requires patient dedication and a long term view. By taking steps to respect, control and nurture their own immediate environments through planting, Ms. Maathai believed that communities could cultivate characteristics and qualities that would positively impact other societal virtues, community needs and civic institutions.
Ms. Maathai saw the world holistically, with the values of honor, respect, and appreciation for land and nature directly connected to pride and respect for human rights and bedrock to building a fair and democratic government. “What I have learned over the years,” she explains in Unbowed, “is that we must be patient, persistent, and committed… Like a seedling, with sun, good soil, and abundant rain, the roots of our future will bury themselves in the ground and a canopy of hope will reach into the sky.”